In light of inequitable access, directors make tough decision to return to pre-COVID fines starting July 1

Clackamas County library directors recently made a unanimous decision to end the temporary suspension of overdue fines and to return to the prepandemic status quo starting July 1.

COURTESY PHOTO - Librarians wear gloves and masks to handle and organize returned materials in the lobby at the Oregon City Public Library.Library directors throughout the county did not take lightly the decision to return to charging late fees, in light of the American Library Association's 2019 Resolution on Monetary Library Fines as a Form of Social Inequity, and neighboring Multnomah County's decision to permanently stop charging late fees in 2020.

Lake Oswego's Melissa Kelly and Oregon City's Greg Williams agree that there's an industrywide recognition and concern among library directors about the inequitable impact of overdue fines.

"We want it to be equitable for all," Kelly said. "(Charging overdue fines) creates some inequities in the system, and we want to get away from that."

When the COVID-19 pandemic first started, LINCC libraries agreed to temporarily suspend overdue fines, recognizing that assessing overdue fines during a period of significant uncertainty and adversity could pose additional financial burdens and stress for many patrons, Williams said.

PMG PHOTO: RAYMOND RENDLEMAN - Oregon City Public Library Director Greg Williams helps Marisa Fleming navigate changes to the system for picking up holds in November."I and my LINCC library-director colleagues strongly support equitable and expanded access to public library services, and we all work very hard to further those goals in a variety of ways," Williams said. "But not every library or library system is in a financial position where they are able to eliminate overdue fines."

LINCC librarians are empowered to waive late fees for people whose fines are becoming a barrier to access.

"We've been working to set up our budget so we're not reliant on that revenue from fines," Kelly said, adding that the library is working to increase fundraising efforts as well.

Libraries across Clackamas County are reinstituting fines at a time when full access to libraries hasn't been restored.

LOPL opened Wednesday, June 16, for in-person browsing. They have been open since March with limited access to the main floor for people to pick up holds, but all floors were not open for browsing. Now "folks can access almost every space in the library," Kelly said, although Lake Oswego's conference and story pit is still closed. Lake Oswego has nine computers available, as well as copiers and printers, with plans to allow access to more computers as social distancing requirements are lifted.

Similarly, the West Linn Public Library opened for browsing June 2. West Linn library Director Doug Erickson said the library was looking forward to expanding hours on July 6. At that point, the West Linn library will be fully functioning, except for programs, which won't be held in-person until the fall.

According to Erickson, the first few weeks of having the library open for browsing have gone smoothly. On July 6, the library will reopen areas for patrons to sit and read.

However, most of Oregon City's library remains closed to the public, except for a few shelves of new and popular materials that became available for browsing in April as people come to the library to pick up their holds. Oregon City no longer requires appointments to pick up library holds, and patrons who are 13 or older can drop in during hold pickup hours to use one of Oregon City's computers for a 30-minute session.

On June 22, Oregon City's Childrens Room reopens for browsing, and on June 29, its adults and teens areas reopen for browsing. Other services such as meeting rooms, study areas, storytimes and seating will be phased in gradually. On July 6, OC Library's hours will be expanding to 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday, and noon-5 p.m. Sunday.

Williams said he fully supports "ongoing and robust conversations" in every community within LINCC about what services public libraires should provide, and what funding levels might be necessary for libraries to deliver those services sustainably and equitably. He said Clackamas County libraries are among the many library systems nationally that are dependent on library fines as an additional source of revenue to fund operating hours, staff and library services. At 39 cents per $1,000 in assessed value, the LINCC dedicated library tax rate is the lowest permanent rate in the Metro region.

"Permanent elimination of this revenue would represent a notable financial impact, which would impact library services to the community," Williams said. "When it comes to fine elimination, revenue reduction and ensuring equitable access to library services, there aren't any easy answers. But it's important that we continue to have these conversations with our library board, with other LINCC libraries, with our community, and with other stakeholders, and figure out how we can continue to reduce and eliminate barriers to library access, while ensuring the long-term sustainability and availability of library services for everyone in our community."

Oregon City regularly hosted food-for-fines and half-off fines events prepandemic, and Williams hopes to resume these types of activities as the library returns to more normal operations.

Erickson said the West Linn Library also was still working out details for how it would reinstitute fines, noting the library has always tried to work with readers so fines don't create a barrier to books and services.

Pamplin Media Group reporters Clara Howell and Holly Bartholomew contributed to this story.

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