Are libraries closing the book on late fees?
Overdue books, DVDs and other items cost Vernon Area Library District patrons about $50,000 in fines in 2015.
Nowadays, they pay nothing for their tardiness.
The library is one of several in the suburbs to do away with fines on the theory they create ill will and keep people from using the library.
"Nobody likes to shake anybody down for 10 cents. Our patrons didn't like it, and our staff didn't like doing it," said Cindy Fuerst, director of the Lincolnshire-based library.
But those dimes added up.
Across the suburbs, revenue from fines has dropped by almost $695,138 a year since 2015. That's according to a Daily Herald analysis of audits from 51 suburban library districts and municipal library systems.
In part, that's because half a dozen libraries no longer levy fines, but also because of other changes. Some libraries automatically renew overdue material to keep patrons from accruing daily penalties if there's no one on a waiting list for the item. There's also a rise in use of electronic books and other downloadable material that simply disappears from devices once the borrowing period is over, with no fines.
Five suburban library systems have seen yearly fine collections drop more than $40,000 each since 2015.
Some libraries have found ways to make up the money, some have cut costs, and a few have actually increased revenue from fines.
The Ela Area Public Library based in Lake Zurich beefed up its passport processing program after it stopped collecting fines. People applying for passports pay a surcharge, which library Director Matt Womack said more than covers the lost late fees.
Other libraries have streamlined operations.
"Once we instituted automatic renewals, that precluded a lot of materials from becoming late," said Batavia Public Library District Director George Scheetz. "For our size library, that was a good chunk of money that we really haven't replaced. We just took the hit."
Late fee revenue in Batavia dropped from $45,686 in 2015 to $16,931 in 2017. Still, Batavia's library board wasn't ready to give up on fines altogether, Scheetz said.
"Fines are a reflection of good stewardship of the library's resources," Scheetz said. "If something isn't brought back, or is brought back late, that means the next person that wants it is being denied access to it."
Library officials say the revenue drop doesn't result from declining library usage.
"In fact, statistics show that usage is up," said Diane Foote, executive director of the Illinois Library Association. "Libraries are actually experiencing a modest growth because of programming and other initiatives."
But the movement to end fines is gaining momentum, Foote said.
Along with Ela and Vernon, library districts like Algonquin, Wood Dale, Kaneville and Lakemoor's River East no longer collect fines, according to the districts' financial reports. Most stopped within the past two years.
"Fines were implemented as a way to encourage people to bring materials back to the library and never intended to be a barrier to service, but for some that's what it's become," Womack said. "If they rack up a fine and can't afford to use the library, that doesn't do anybody any good. Plus, a $10 or $15 fine pales in comparison to what a family pays in property taxes to access our library."
In lieu of fines, patrons simply aren't allowed to check out any more items until the late ones are returned.
The Fremont Public Library District board in Mundelein recently voted to end fines in April. Addison -- one of the few libraries to see an increase in late fee revenue between 2015 and 2017 -- went "fine free" in late 2016 for district residents only, which will decrease revenues by roughly $40,000 a year, officials estimated.
"It seemed like a really nice appropriate thing to do for our residents," said Dianne Ludwig, Addison's head of guest services.
"We just shaved a little here and a little there out of other parts of the budget."
Many library administrators said they saw the writing on the wall with the revenue decline and pushed their boards to give up fines to curry goodwill with patrons. Most fines are set at a nickel or dime a day. Sometimes collecting the fines was more expensive than what was being collected, they said.
Though it's collecting about $50,000 less a year after dropping fines, the Vernon Area Public Library still generates roughly $21,000 from lost or damaged materials, according to their financial records. Fuerst said the staff time that went into chasing down late fees and processing payments offset the revenue generated by the fines.
Fuerst said after ending fines, the library experienced an uptick in new patrons who were issued library cards. And late materials that previously averaged 19 days overdue come in an average of 11 days late after fines were stopped, Fuerst said.
Ludwig said the same thing happened in Addison.
"It is counterintuitive, right?" she said.
For most libraries, fines make up about 1 percent of the annual revenue. Because libraries are limited in how they generate funds -- mostly through property taxes -- many boards hesitate to give up fines.
"It is important revenue," said Carole Medal, executive director of Elgin's Gail Borden Library District. "We have discussed the idea (of eliminating late fees), but we feel that it is an incentive to return the materials."
Gail Borden, which receives about $200,000 annually in late fees, is also one of the few districts to see an increase in that revenue from 2015 to 2017. And that's even after the library reduced the fine for late DVDs from 10 cents a day to 5 cents.
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