Fines boost library, promote responsibility

That unread library book that has sat on the shelf or night stand for months is going to cost library patrons 15 cents for each day past its return date.

The policy to charge for overdue books, CDs, videos and other library materials went into effect in the five-county Timberland Regional Library system last week.

Paying fines, up to a maximum of $4.20 per item for each loan period, was inevitable. The library system, like other government entities, is in a financial bind. And around the country charging for late material is the norm, not the exception.

Given the financial constraints of the 27- library district and the desire to keep books and other library material in constant circulation, imposing fines and encouraging borrowers to return items on schedule makes good sense. Why shouldn’t library patrons be forced to accept personal responsibility for their actions?

Despite what some critics say, the imposition of fines is not retaliation for the loss of the library system’s ballot proposition in February. The fines, reductions in hours of service and other cutbacks are a reflection of the library trustees’ need to close a $2.5 million, two-year budget gap. The financial crunch is caused by rising costs, fewer tax dollars from timber sales and limits on property tax increases.

It’s not surprising that in the midst of the national recession, a majority of voters in Thurston, Mason, Lewis, Grays Harbor and Pacific counties, rejected a property tax increase. That forced trustees to make a number of budget cuts.

The seven trustees already had done the easy things. They put a hiring freeze in place that resulted in the loss of more than 18 staff positions. They ordered libraries to close on Sundays, reduced the number of hours for part-time employees and cut $162,000 from the $1 million spent annually to purchase new books, CDs and reference materials.

Forced into survival mode after the levy defeat and the need to cut another 13 percent from the operating budget, library trustees – Judy Weaver, Dick Nichols, Bob Hall, Jo-Ann Andrews, Edna Fund, John Braun and Stephen Hardy – held a series of community meetings throughout the district asking library patrons where additional cuts should come.

Further reduction of hours of service were ordered at 25 of the 27 libraries, including all branches in Thurston County. The district started charging 10 cents a page for most printing on Jan. 1. When Timberland is charged a fee to borrow an item from another library system, that fee is now passed on to the Timberland patron.

The trustees also opted to begin charging for overdue material. That’s a first in the 40-year history of the Timberland Regional Library system.

Patrons will be notified in advance of a pending due date and notified again when an item has been kept beyond the due date. There is no grace period. The fine is 15 cents per day.

That’s not going to impact most library patrons. Statistics from the first nine months of the year show that only about 7 percent of the 3.6 million items checked out were kept beyond their return date.

Once a patron has accumulated $5 in fines, the patron will be prohibited from checking out additional material until the fine is paid. Items overdue for 28 days are considered lost, and the patron will be billed for the full replacement cost of the lost item.

The new fines are expected to bring in $200,000 next year with $50,000 received in printing charges, according to Michael Crose, Timberland’s administrative services manager.

In one other area, last July Timberland officials limited the maximum number of holds and checked-out items for each patron to 25 and 50, respectively.

Truth be told, the fines and the limits on items on library holds and items checked out will help other patrons receive their desired items in a more timely fashion. That’s an upside to the new policies.

While some will criticize Timberland officials for moving to fines, others will recognize that it’s time for library patrons to take personal responsibility for their library materials and ensure that they are returned on time. It’s not too much to ask.