In 25 years as a librarian, Nate Cushman has never charged an overdue fine.

It’s not because Cushman is a nice guy (though he is). It’s not because his patrons always return their books on time (they don’t). It’s because he’s spent his entire career at Sno-Isle Libraries, which did away with late fines decades ago.

The system that serves rural Snohomish and Island counties was apparently ahead of the curve, because eliminating such charges is now a trend in large cities, based on the idea that fines can stop people from using libraries — particularly poor people.

Library systems in Washington, D.C., Salt Lake City, Baltimore and other cities have taken the step recently and the Seattle Public Library (SPL) could do the same soon, using money from a property-tax levy on the Aug. 6 ballot. Even in prosperous Seattle, 20% of accounts are blocked due to debts.

“For some people, a $5 fine isn’t a big deal. For other people, that can be a huge issue,” Cushman said.

Proposed by Mayor Jenny Durkan and advanced by the City Council, Seattle’s new seven-year, $219 million levy would replace an existing seven-year $123 million levy set to expire at the end of 2019. It would allow SPL to maintain and add hours and services and to renovate branches at a cost of $7 per month for the owner of a home of median value.

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Though only $8 million would be used to replace revenue from fines, it’s the plan to scrap the overdue charges that’s sparked some public debate.

“There’s this lack of responsibility,” said Ballard voter Erika Engelhardt, who wrote to Durkan and the council objecting to the change. “I don’t want to pick up the tab because you can’t return your book.”

Late charges are bringing in less revenue than before, the levy’s proponents point out, because fine-free electronic materials are becoming more popular. Conventional wisdom says money motivates patrons to return items on time, but other library systems that have moved to improve equity have seen usage increase without negative consequences.

Furthermore, fines clash with the values that librarians hold dear. “Working in an environment without fines makes every interaction so much better,” Cushman said. “It’s liberating.”

Fast Facts

Levy at a glance

Proposition No. 1 on Seattle's Aug. 6 primary ballot would authorize a seven-year, $219 million property-tax levy with a plan to spend in various areas, including:

• $71.1 million to maintain and extend hours at library branches

• $58.2 million to maintain and expand physical and digital collections

• $29.4 million to replace, maintain and enhance library technology

• $55.7 million to maintain and renovate library buildings

• $2.1 million to grow library programs for young children

• $1.1 million to hire additional social workers

Source: Seattle Public Library

Today, SPL charges overdue fines of 25 cents per day for books and DVDs, up to $8 per item. Patrons who owe $15 are blocked from borrowing, and patrons who owe $25 have their accounts sent to a collections agency.

Under the new plan, SPL would continue charging replacement fees and blocking patrons from borrowing in some cases. Items now are deemed lost after 40 days, though they can be returned after that time.

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That’s roughly how the Sno-Isle system works. Patrons are charged replacement fees and are blocked from borrowing when their items run two weeks past due. When they return their items, no matter how late, their accounts are wiped clean.

“The last thing we want is when somebody unable to pay decides, ‘I’m just going to keep the book and stop using the library,'” Cushman said. “We want the book back.”

Items in the Sno-Isle system are automatically renewed up to five times, unless they have holds. SPL may also adopt auto renewals and may move to declare items lost after a shorter period than 40 days, spokeswoman Andra Addison said.

Sno-Isle patrons returned 92% of their items on time in February, without the threat of fines. The same month, Seattle patrons also returned 92% of their items on time.

What the levy would pay for

Seattle’s new libraries levy would collect about 12 cents per $1,000 of assessed value in 2020, or about $85 for a $700,000 home. Most of the money — $167 million — would be used to maintain services already being provided, with costs driven up by inflation. That means a rejected levy could mean significant cuts in library hours and programs.

The rest of the money would be used to do more. For example, the new levy would allow the Delridge, Green Lake, NewHolly and Wallingford branches to open on Fridays, extend hours at the High Point, International District/Chinatown and South Park branches and keep all 27 neighborhood branches open longer at night.

It would also pay for seismic renovations at the Columbia City, Green Lake and University branches, more “play and learn” programs for children, additional social workers for homeless patrons and more Wi-Fi hot spots for patrons to check out.

This year, levy dollars represent about 24% of SPL’s $84.1 million operations and capital budget. Under the new measure, they would account for about 29% annually.

Touting the proposal earlier this year, Durkan told voters, “we will get so much for a relatively small amount.” Seattle’s population has soared and 5 million SPL visitors checked out 10 million items last year. “Libraries are the people’s university,” Councilmember Debora Juarez said.

At a rally last month, supporter Paula Becker said patrons rely on SPL for homework help, reading material, cultural programs and warm spaces. She said multiple branches were precious to her son when he was struggling with drugs and homelessness.

The system’s staffers “cushioned my son Hunter during what turned out to be a pretty rough life,” Becker said. “The Seattle Public Library provides help and services to the most vulnerable members of our community.”

A pro-levy campaign has raised about $300,000, mostly from the Seattle Public Library Foundation and the Friends of the Seattle Public Library, and has been spending its money on advertisements and mailers.

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“In our rapidly-changing Seattle, our public library system is at the heart of a healthy, equitable and livable city,” the campaign’s ballot statement says. “For $3 more per month for the average homeowner, we can protect the critical investments we’ve made over the years and renew our commitment.”

In an opposition statement, former GOP state Secretary of State Bruce Chapman, former King County Auditor Lloyd Hara and Eastlake neighborhood activist Chris Leman argue SPL’s operational needs should be addressed with revenue already available and levy dollars reserved for key capital projects.

The mayor and council have created “an artificial emergency to scare voters” into a tax increase, they contend, noting the plan includes no citizen-oversight committee.

Though she loves libraries and has repeatedly voted to raise taxes in Seattle, Engelhardt may oppose the new levy due to anger over the city’s inability to reduce homelessness, she said.

“My neighborhood library, the Ballard branch, is too sketchy to enjoy spending any time in anymore,” the homeowner wrote in an letter to the mayor and council.

Tom Kelly, a retired lawyer, is also skeptical. Late fines should be used to help ensure items are returned, the Denny Blaine homeowner said, suggesting they be waived only in certain, worthy cases. “There’s always a temptation to not return the book on time, and that directly hurts the next person in line,” Kelly said.

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Progressive, book-loving Seattle voters are likely to approve the levy. The 2012 version garnered a nearly 2/3 majority.

A national trend

The case for scrapping overdue fines has gained momentum across the country in recent years, driven by a desire to reduce barriers to access, and SPL has been considering the change since 2016.

SPL nixed fines for children’s materials in 1990 but brought them back in 2009 to raise revenue during the economic recession.

SPL patrons in less-wealthy neighborhoods owe more, on average. At the Rainier Beach branch, the average account balance is $14.77 and 36% of accounts are blocked. At the Northeast branch, the average balance is 79 cents and only 11% are blocked.

Library directors elsewhere are happy without fines. Before Durkan pitched Seattle’s new levy, SPL consulted with several other systems and they all reported “positive effects” on patron relations “with no significant impact on return rates,” Addison said.

In Baltimore, which went fine free and adopted auto renewals last year, checkouts, returned items and library-card registrations are up.

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In Salt Lake City, which eliminated late charges and adopted auto renewals in 2017, the average period to fill a hold has increased from 9.7 days to 10.3 days. But borrowers and items borrowed have increased, and a smaller share of items are running past due, executive director Peter Bromberg said.

Checkouts and returns are down in Denver, which went fine-free this year. But registrations are up and blocked patrons are returning.

In St. Paul, checkouts have grown with no significant increases in wait times for items on hold. Washington, D.C., Miami and Dallas have seen similar results. 

Because Sno-Isle nixed late charges so long ago, Cushman doesn’t know what the initial results were. He can only judge the policy by interactions with patrons.

Sometimes, “the mother doesn’t know that one book slid under the front seat of her car,” he said, and sometimes, “they leave the DVD in the player and return the case.”

Cushman reassures older adults who call “with panic” in their voices, worried about incurring late charges because they can’t get rides to the library in time.

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“The joy when I tell them there won’t be a fine … That’s always a pleasurable conversation,” he said.

Jamie Steffen, a Snohomish patron, said the approach reduces stress without stopping her from using due dates to teach her daughters about responsibility. “There are ways that don’t involve money,” the 38-year-old said. “We still talk about it.”

When Lauren Hebert was a child in Louisiana, she let a book run past due. Rather than tell her parents, Hebert stopped visiting the library. She didn’t return until college, when she realized how much she’d missed.

“I grew up poor and I knew I was going to get in some trouble and I knew it had to do with money,” the 35-year-old recalled. “I was just so scared, I never went back.”

This May, Hebert started work as a library associate at the Snohomish branch. Her job should be to keep people reading, she said, not to make them pay.

“We’re trying to build trust with our community, and when you extend trust, you receive it,” Hebert said.