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Late fees a thing of the past at Cape Elizabeth library

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Late fees a thing of the past at Cape Elizabeth library

CAPE ELIZABETH — Forget to return a library book? Forget about the late fee, too.

On Monday night, the Town Council voted unanimously to eliminate all fines for late materials at Thomas Memorial Library.

The action followed a recommendation from the library board of trustees, and takes effect immediately.

Fines for damaged or lost items, however, will continue to be levied.

In a review of the policy change, library staff found that almost half of libraries within the Maine inter-library loan cooperative, known as Minerva, do not charge late fees, said Rachel Davis, assistant library director and childrens' librarian.

"In people's minds, fees can become a barrier for coming in," Davis said, noting that the current fine of 10 cents per day has been in place for more than 20 years. "It makes more sense in the current day and age, because if fines were in line with inflation, they would be ridiculous. ... It's just a more customer-friendly way to encourage library use. "

If library patrons lose or damage books and don't pay the associated fines, their borrowing privileges may be revoked. Davis said this method also gives people a better sense of the value of the materials when they see the cost, rather than an arbitrary fee.

Library fees generate about $6,500 per year in revenue, although that money is deposited into the town's general fund and does not directly benefit the library. The income is also negated by staff hours directed toward maintaining the fee records, according to a cost analysis by library staff.

The financial impact, according to the library staff numbers, resulted in a net annual loss last year of $762.

Town Manager Mike McGovern advised against eliminating fines and said he doubted the figures presented by the library.

"I don't believe these numbers for a second," he said, suggesting that the impact on library staff time was inflated.

McGovern said a broader look at staffing needs to be taken before this type of policy is adopted.

"As the library committee considers what to do with the library, I think we have an opportunity in the next year or two to really look to see what we need for a staff at a library in the second decade of the 21st Century," he said.

McGovern said that involves looking at positions that are more geared toward technology and less on traditional print materials like books and magazines. 

Library Director Jay Scherma defended the cost analysis and said he will continue to review staffing.

"I respectfully beg to differ with Mike that it's a fairly direct cost-to-benefits ratio in terms of whose time is being spent to manage those fines," he said. "It's a fairly easy translation to say if I'm not counting fines, I'm saving two hours a week because I know how much time my staff is actually spending counting money (from fines)."

Scherma said with that salvaged time he'll be able to "use relatively high-paid staff members in other avenues that better directly serve the public."

Davis said other libraries that were consulted , such as Baxter Memorial Library in Gorham, said they haven't seen increases in late materials as a result of eliminating fines.

Although the library will no longer have a fee-collection policy, Davis said it may put out a "conscience jar," as other libraries have, to prompt people to contribute if they feel guilty about late returns.

Will Graff can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or wgraff@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @W_C_Graff.