Seattle could “correct a historic inequity” by eliminating library fines for overdue items as part of a $213 million new property-tax levy, Mayor Jenny Durkan said Wednesday.
“We will make sure that our public library system more than ever opens its door for opportunity and equity,” the mayor said in a news conference at the Seattle Public Library’s Lake City branch.
Durkan made the pitch as she unveiled a proposal to replace a library levy expiring at the end of this year with a larger version.
Under her plan, a seven-year, $213 million property-tax levy would take the place of the expiring seven-year, $123 million levy that supplements the library system’s regular budget.
The new levy would cost the owner of a home of median assessed value about $7 per month, or about $1.58 per month more than the existing levy, the mayor’s office said.
The City Council intends to review Durkan’s proposal starting March 28 and could send a plan to the Aug. 6 ballot.
“I know that with every levy we pass we’re asking the people of Seattle to do more,” Durkan said. “We believe this additional investment is so important and we will get so much for a relatively small amount.”
The city would use about $8 million from the new levy to eliminate Seattle Public Library fines for late items, under Durkan’s proposal. Some other cities, such as Denver and Saint Paul, Minnesota, have already taken that step as a way to remove barriers to library use that disproportionately affect people with less money.
Those cities still charge replacement fees when items are ruined or not returned at all, and Seattle would do the same, according to the mayor’s office. Items are considered lost after 40 days, though items can still be returned after that time.
“Higher average balances and blocked accounts occur in greater numbers in lower-income and historically underserved neighborhoods, resulting in almost 20 percent of Seattle Public Library accounts without access to the library,” Durkan’s office said in a statement Wednesday.
Right now, the Seattle Public Library charges overdue fines of 25 cents per day for most items, with a maximum of $8 per item. Items borrowed via interlibrary loan cost $1 per day, up to $15 per item.
Patrons who owe more than $15 are blocked from checking out and renewing additional items, and accounts that owe $25 or more are sent to a collections agency with a $12 fee tacked on. The system has a policy that allows repayment for lost items in installments.
The library system has about 500,000 accounts total, 20 percent of which are blocked due to money owed. There are 360,000 active accounts and of those, 10,400 are blocked due to overdue fines, totaling $215,000 at the moment, spokeswoman Laura Gentry said. The system collects more than $1 million in fines and fees each year.
The largest portion of the new levy’s proceeds would be used to keep libraries open longer, with $67.5 million dedicated to maintaining hours throughout the system and extending hours at branches including High Point, International District/Chinatown, South Park, Delridge, Green Lake, New Holly and Wallingford.
The second-largest portion, $55.7 million, would be used for building maintenance and renovations, including $14 million for seismic retrofits of the Columbia, Green Lake and University branches that were built more than 100 years ago with grants from steel baron and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.
The city would spend $58.2 million on library collections and $29.4 million on technology services, including $5.3 million to enable more short-term checkouts of Wi-Fi hot spots and to maintain internet access at tiny-house villages for people experiencing homelessness.
The library system has 27 branches in total and served 5 million visitors last year, who checked out 10 million items, officials said. The system’s operating budget this year is $80.9 million, including $17.6 million in levy funds.