The King County Library System, which hasn’t been charging late fees for books and materials since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, wiped all late fees Wednesday and announced it will start fining procrastinating patrons on Sept. 15.

“We understand patrons may have accumulated overdue materials during the pandemic, and we don’t want that to keep them from accessing everything that KCLS has to offer,” the system’s executive director, Lisa Rosenblum, said via a spokesperson. “We hope this initiative gives patrons the financial assistance they may need and extra time to return overdue items.”

This “Fresh Start for All,” as the system’s board of trustees termed it, will not apply to materials that are considered “lost” — that is, more than 30 days overdue. On May 4, the King County libraries will begin processing those fees again and patrons will have until Sept. 15 to return items or pay fees before the accounts are blocked from further borrowing. The library system will mail billing notices to accounts with over $25 in fees.

Late fines account for less than 1% of the library system’s budget, but a $208,000 grant from the King County Library System Foundation will help pay for this. A spokesperson said that based on historical data, the library system would normally expect to collect up to $468,000 that it won’t now, with this move.

King County Library Systems’ 50 locations are almost entirely outside of Seattle, which has its own library system that stopped charging late fees entirely a few months before the pandemic. The Seattle library system still suspends accounts with overdue materials and charges replacement fees for lost or damaged materials, and refers accounts with $25 balances or more to collection agencies.

For years, the county library system has cost far more to run than it gains from things like late fees. It stays open, like Seattle’s library, with help from a county levy on assessed value of property, which pays for 97% of the budget, according to the library system’s 2022 preliminary budget document. The library system raised the “lid” of the levy (how much it charges per $1,000 of assessed value) in 2002 and 2010 to cover increased costs in maintenance, salaries and health care benefits.

The board of trustees planned to ask King County voters to raise the rate of money per $1,000 of assessed value again in 2020, but postponed because of the pandemic. As the $135 million budget has gotten more stretched, the library system has reduced the size of its staff — from 882 full-time staff in 2018, to 819 projected through this year, according to the budget narrative.