Library fines hit Seattle's lower-income neighborhoods hardest
In her $213 million library proposal, Mayor Durkan suggests eliminating fines. Data show the poorest areas stand to benefit most.
Steve DelVecchio doesn’t want to think about library fines. “It’s not the reason that we’re here,” said DelVecchio, the regional manager of four branches of the Seattle Public Library. “We want people to have access to materials.”
Mayor Jenny Durkan doesn’t want Steve DelVecchio — or anyone, for that matter — thinking about fines either. In the proposed seven-year, $213.3 million property tax levy the mayor rolled out last week, Seattle Public Libraries would do away with late fees, following a trend of libraries across the country looking to make access to their materials and services more equitable.
“We find that fines are barriers in ways that they really shouldn’t be, and they don’t need to be, and we can have a better system,” Durkan said as she unveiled the proposal in Lake City.
The decision by large libraries to move away from the punitive fine-based system is grounded in a growing understanding of whom those fines affect most — people in lower-income neighborhoods and communities of color.
Seattle is no exception. While the library does not collect information on the age, race, income or gender of its patrons, there is a strong correlation between lower-income Seattle communities and higher impacts of the fine system.
The branches with the highest proportion of accounts blocked for overdue fines are all in parts of Seattle that are both poorer and more diverse than the city as a whole. They are all in the southern part of the city.
At the South Park library, 20 percent of frequent users’ accounts have been blocked, according to data provided by SPL. In Rainier Beach, the number is 18 percent; at Delridge, the Central District's Douglass Truth and NewHolly in southwest Seattle, 17 percent are blocked.
By contrast, library branches in richer and whiter neighborhoods have significantly fewer blocked accounts. At the Wallingford and Queen Anne branches, just 6 percent of patrons are blocked; at Fremont, Magnolia, Greenlake and Montlake, that number is 7 percent.
The total amount owed follows a similar pattern. In South Park, patrons owe an average of $15.91; in Magnolia, the amount is just $4.60.
Accounts are blocked once fines — which total 25 cents per day, per item — exceed $15. Accounts that exceed $25 in late fines are sent to collections.
DelVecchio — who is careful to avoid advocating for the levy in his official capacity — sees the impact most clearly at the Douglass Truth branch, which he manages in addition to Capitol Hill, Montlake and Madrona/Sally Goldmark. He guesses that the Central District location has a high number of blocked accounts because of how many young people use it. “Kids and teens especially can sometimes be heavily impacted by fines going above the level when you can continue to check out materials, and their parents aren’t necessarily always aware,” he said.
More broadly, though, DelVecchio sees a disproportionate impact. “It absolutely feels like an equity issue to me,” he said.
At the root of the problem is not who is returning books late, but who can afford to do so.
In its path toward eliminating library fines, San Francisco — another West Coast city struggling with housing prices and vast inequality — looked into their affects and the impact of eliminating them. The report concluded that “patrons across the city — regardless of income — miss return deadlines at similar rates.”
What was different was who could pay them back and how quickly. “Overdue fines do not turn irresponsible patrons into responsible ones,” the report read. “They only distinguish between patrons who can afford to pay for the common mistake of late returns and those who cannot.”
In January, the San Francisco Library Commission recommended eliminating fines, and the city’s Board of Supervisors could vote on the issue this June.
Brian Lawrence, senior director of strategic initiatives and advancement with the Seattle Public Library Foundation, a nonprofit organization set up to help raise money for the library, agreed with San Francisco’s assessment. “Many people incur fines,” he said. “The difference is, people who have financial means can recover from those fines while people who may be economically disadvantaged … they cannot recover as easily.”
The library currently collects $1.1 million a year in overdue fines. That’s about 1.3 percent of its $80.9 million budget for 2019. Durkan’s levy sets aside about $8 million to eliminate fines.
If voters agree, Seattle would join a growing number of libraries moving away from a fine-based system. Cleveland, Denver, Salt Lake City, San Diego and as many as 50 others across the country have done away with the system.
“This has been a topic of debate and discussion probably much longer than I’ve been working in public libraries,” said DelVecchio, who has been working in libraries for three decades. “The idea that [fines are] the best way or only way to do it I don’t think is all that current among public libraries.”
After eliminating fines, Salt Lake City actually saw its late returns drop from 9 percent to 4 percent, according to San Francisco’s report. Other libraries reported an increase in people using the library, perhaps because they no longer feared fines.
Voters approved a $123 million levy in 2012 (about $134 million in 2019 dollars), which expires at the end of this year. The new proposed levy would be about a 58 percent increase over the old, when adjusted for inflation.
In addition to eliminating fines, the levy would fund expanded hours, new technology, additional collections and maintenance. Durkan’s proposal now goes to the Seattle City Council for consideration and could go on the ballot as early as Aug. 6.