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SF Library owed $4.5M in overdue fines; amnesty period proposed

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The San Francisco Public Library has revoked more than 55,000 library users’ borrowing privileges because of overdue books. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

San Francisco Library officials have their eyes on the more than $4.5 million of fines accumulated from overdue books.

But library patrons with overdue materials — there are about 150,000 of them — needn’t worry about having to fork over wads of cash.

The San Francisco Library intends to offer an amnesty period when fines would be forgiven if books are returned between Jan. 3 and Feb. 14. It’s been eight years since the previous amnesty period.

More than 55,000 library users have had their check-out privileges revoked because they owe at least $10.01, the threshold for when book borrowing privileges are suspended. The Board of Supervisors is expected to approve the amnesty period on Nov. 15.

Amid San Francisco’s share of affordability challenges like high rents, library fines raise questions of equity.

“We are hoping that this six-week program will be even more successful in helping us not only reduce the obligation but also bring back folks that we want to be able to use the library,” City Librarian Luis Herrera told the Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee last week during a hearing on the proposal.

Supervisor Norman Yee wondered why the library doesn’t offer amnesty more often.

Michael Lambert, deputy city librarian, acknowledged the library may have waited a bit too long, but that there was a balance to strike. “The library tries to balance not going to the proverbial well too often and being good stewards of the community’s resources, however we are overdue and it is time to offer this program again.”

Of 150,000 library patrons with some account balance, 55,256 patrons owe $10.01 or more and 29,554 patrons have billed items on their accounts. After 60 days an overdue item becomes a billed item charged to the account and no longer accrues the 10-cents-a-day fee.

Some argue the library shouldn’t have a fee system at all, viewing it as a deterrent for many residents.

“We certainly support the library’s amnesty but we think the people who have stayed away from the library are exactly the ones that we should have encouraged through a no-fine permanent system,” Peter Warfield, who heads a group called the Library Users Association, told the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.

Warfield said that “the library is immensely wealthy, has a huge reserve of over $20 million and something on the order of a half a million in fines and fees year.”

The library collected $445,590 last fiscal year in fine and fees.

Warfield added, “We don’t want to encourage a rip-off system but we do think there should be a non-cash way to pay.”

The library estimates it will forgo anywhere between $15,975 and $76,782 in fines based on previous amnesty periods. With the average library item valued at $25, the library expects to recover between $40,725 and $203,775 worth of items.

“The Library projects the next fee amnesty program will recover a range of 9,459 items on the low end to 44,178 items on the high end for current numbers of items in an overdue and/or billed status,” reads a Sept. 15 library memo.

But even with the amnesty period less than half of the overdue items are expected to be returned.

“All told, there are 106,533 items in our collection that we would like to recover,” Lambert said.

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