Library is considering ending late fees forkids

OMAHA

Late fines for young people could go by the wayside at the Omaha Public Library.

Library leaders are considering a proposal to no longer charge youths 19 and younger who return materials late.

Library Director Laura Marlane said fines often don't encourage people to bring items back. Instead, they keep people out of the library.

Nearly 10,000 Omaha kids and teenagers are blocked from using their library cards because they owe $10 or more in fines and fees.

That has an adverse effect for children at north Omaha's Washington branch, where 22 percent of young readers can't use their library cards because their fines aren't paid.

"I think children should always be given the benefit of the doubt," Marlane told members of the Library Board earlier this month.

The board delayed a vote on the proposed change and will consider it again at its next meeting. That's scheduled for 5 p.m. on Dec. 20 at the Benson branch.

Some board members voiced support for the idea, while others offered tweaks including doing away with late fines for kids 14 and younger.

Waiving late fines for younger people isn't unheard of, and some systems go further. Kids 19 and younger aren't charged any fees at the District of Columbia Public Library, for instance.

Meanwhile, the New York Public Library this fall took part in a one-time amnesty program to forgive all children's fines.

For a week in October, the Omaha Public Library accepted food donations in exchange for credit toward overdue fines. It raised 5,500 pounds of food, Marlane said.

Library Board member Mike Kennedy said that's a great benefit for the community. But he'd still like the late fines policy to have teeth, even if it simply required that a child read away his or her late fines.

"I think you have to have some accountability at some level," he said.

Marlane said that kids ages 11 to 18 can already wipe away their overdue fines by volunteering. She said she'd like to see programs like All Clear for kids who are too small to volunteer.

Currently, kids 13 and younger get a 60-day grace period. After that, the account is billed with the price of the item. If the item is returned, the fine is removed.

Even if the proposed policy is adopted, young readers would continue to face fines for not returning items or returning damaged items.

And accounts owing more than $25 would still be sent to Unique Management Services, the collections agency that contacts people with long-overdue books and materials.

Board member Adrian Suarez-Delgado said he liked the proposal and wants the library to be easily accessible. Even $5 in late fines is a lot of money for some users, he said.

"The fear alone of that potential money is enough to keep them from even stepping into the library," he said.

Marlane noted that should the proposal pass, she could make the 2018 budget work without the revenue expected from such fines.

emily.nohr@owh.com, 402-444-1309

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