Patrons of the San Jose (Calif.) Public Library owe $6.8 million for overdue books, DVDs and CDs, prompting the San Jose City Council to review the best way to recover the funds without simultaneously scaring people away. 

Budget cuts in recent years have taken a toll on San Jose libraries. While hours and services have been reduced, fines were raised in 2010 from 25 cents to 50 cents a day. The city grants a three-week borrowing window and allows fees to rise to $20. By last fall, some 40% of the city’s 475,000 cardholders got dinged with debt. Nearly a third returned all materials but had yet to pay off late fines.

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, along with council members Magdalena Carrasco and Raul Peralez, suggested cutting the number of items a cardholder could check out from 100 to 25, which is more in line with what’s allowed in other cities, they added. They also want the city to consider settling fines that are more than $100, along with waiving fees for children and patrons who participate in the summer book club.

"While fines are needed to ensure the preservation of the library's physical assets, the policies in effect today are creating barriers for our neediest and youngest residents to this critical resource," the mayor and council members wrote in a shared memo. "Fine debt shuts half of our youth outside of our libraries, particularly in low-income communities."

Jill Bourne, director of library services, has proposed a one-month amnesty to give people a chance to return what’s owed and come back in good standing. She also wants to give people a chance to read their way out of debt by signing up for a summer reading program or work their way out by volunteering. Young patrons accounted for the most outstanding fees. Children, many of them from low-income pockets of the city, owed $1 million of the unpaid fees. Four cardholders have racked up more than $5,000 in fees and three maxed out their bill at $1,000.

To keep patrons from falling behind again, San Jose could consider sending text messages to remind borrowers when books are due and allow them to extend the return date, officials said.The city since 2013 has tried to restore some lost library services. An audit of library hours and operations prompted the city to come up with a more efficient staffing model in 2014. In 2015, the city budgeted to expand library hours from four to six days a week at all branches and the city recently celebrated the opening of its 23rd branch.

Despite improving access, parents and teachers have told the city that kids have been unable to get library cards because their families are afraid of fines. 

The city is looking at what other communities are doing to help figure out how to move ahead. Approaches uses by other cities across the U.S. vary from a no-questions-asked return period to printing names of the biggest debtors in local newspapers. Some libraries make personal calls to debtors. Others hire collection agencies to pursue the accounts.

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