Fines called a life lesson

Councilman opposes Free Library plan, says money could also boost services.

Posted: May 08, 2013

The Free Library of Philadelphia's plan to eliminate overdue book fines for children has struck a sour note with some members of City Council, who question the financial aspect of the policy and the message it sends.

Councilman David Oh was among three Council members who introduced a bill last week against the move, which has been instituted in San Francisco, Milwaukee, and elsewhere.

Oh, in an interview Monday, said he opposed the measure because the money from the fines, which the library estimated at $70,000, could be used to extend hours or provide resources.

Mayor Nutter has proposed increasing the library's budget by $1 million for 2013-14, including $750,000 to extend services to six days in 12 libraries. Branch libraries have cut back hours and days of operation since the recession first hit in 2008.

Oh said the problem was that the library was making the change while also asking the city to restore a 20 percent funding cut. "You're cutting the funds and then you're saying to us to replace those funds with tax increases."

Money from the fines could be distributed to all library branches, Oh said.

The bill also states that "it's important that all patrons, especially including the young, learn that there are consequences for irresponsible behavior such as the loss or late return of borrowed materials."

Teaching children responsibility for their actions is a key part of the measure, said Chris Pienkowski, a legislative aide to Oh.

"When children are taught that they don't need to return their library books or they can hold onto library books for as long as they want and not have to pay any fine as a result, the councilman thinks that sends a bad message to kids," Pienkowski said.

The bill was introduced Thursday by Oh, Brian J. O'Neill, and Bill Green.

At the Free Library's annual budget hearing before City Council last month, president and director Siobhan Reardon announced that the library would no longer prohibit children who have outstanding fines from borrowing materials so long as they do not have any overdue books or other materials.

Joe McPeak, a spokesman for the Free Library, said the change was being introduced to get more children to visit libraries in the summer, noting the "learning loss" among children during summer break. He said another goal was to have every public and charter school student in the city get a library card.

Children could take out additional materials if they owe money for fines, but not if they still have overdue materials out.

The Council bill would not let children take materials out of the library if they still owed fines, but would allow them to use any materials in the library.

"It's not as if they are taking out books and never returning them and taking out more books," Pienkowski said. "This is all about incentivizing kids to read and get to grade level. That we believe outbalances other considerations."

Children's fines for overdue materials amounts to about $70,000 annually, McPeak said. The library system's annual budget is about $40 million, with an estimated $33 million coming from the city, he said.

The Council bill states that revenues from collection of fines for the loss or late returns after collection expenses should be disbursed among the library's branches for enhancing technology resources and youth-specific programs.

Last summer, libraries in Brooklyn, N.Y., eliminated overdue fines for children, and Milwaukee, San Francisco, and Oakland, Calif., have also eliminated the fines, McPeak said.

Children's fines in Philadelphia have been largely dedicated to children's programs, he said.

"The whole idea of children's programs is to get them to read." McPeak said. "We believe that this outbalances that loss of revenue. What's the cost of learning loss? What's the cost of a kid dropping out of school? That's how you have to look at this."


Contact Vernon Clark at 215-854-5717 or vclark@phillynews.com.

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