No more overdue fines. Chattahoochee Valley Libraries’ new policy to be first in Georgia.

The Chattahoochee Valley Libraries will be the first public library system in Georgia to stop fining its borrowers for overdue items when the new policy goes into effect next month.

And on the effective date, Aug. 15, all overdue fines will be cleared from patron accounts, although customers still must pay to replace items not returned after 42 days (six weeks).

The motivation for this change, CVL director Alan Harkness said, is based on the library’s mission to make its collection as accessible as possible to as many folks in the Columbus area as possible — so they use it as often as possible.

“This is a trend nationally,” he said, “and what library systems have found is that … (overdue fines) disproportionately impact children and community members that have the least financial resources. Overdue fines don’t encourage people to bring books back.”

Overdue fines also aren’t a significant source of revenue for CVL, amounting to less than 1% (around $86,000) of its annual budget. Other library systems have overdue fines amounting to as much as 10% of their budget, Harkness said.

“I think when you look at the disadvantaged parts of our community and nationally, some people have to make choices between letting their children check out books and paying for their rent,” he said. “When you look at those kinds of choices the economically disadvantaged have, it’s a no-brainer. I don’t want any child in Muscogee County or in this region to not have access to reading material because of overdue fines.”

CVL serves Muscogee, Chattahoochee, Marion and Stewart counties with seven libraries, two 24/7 automated kiosks and a website for online browsing, reserving and renewing borrowed items.

Georgia has 62 public library systems in the state comprising approximately 400 branches. Atlanta-Fulton County’s system waives fines for children’s books, Harkness said, “but nobody else (in Georgia) does it across the board.”

In Alabama, he said, Auburn’s public library system is the only one he is aware of that doesn’t charge overdue fines.

Each of CVL’s four county library boards and the regional board unanimously approved the new policy request from Harkness.

CVL started moving toward its fines-free policy in May, when it implemented automatic renewals.

“So those people like me who regularly accrued fines will find that they have not been accruing them since that point,” Harkness said. “… You still have four renewals, but if you forgot to renew it, you got punished by being charged for that overdue (item). Now, we just do it for you automatically.”

That means a patron can extend the initial loan period for a book from two weeks to as many as 10 weeks, unless another patron requests that item. CDs, DVDs, audio books and educational kits have different loan periods. Harkness emphasized, however, CVL still will have its same policies requiring patrons to return their borrowed items.

Asked whether the fines-free policy would encourage patrons to hoard borrowed items, keeping them longer than usual from other patrons creating more chances to lose them, Harkness said he has learned that isn’t a problem

“That was one of the things I was most interested in when we started exploring this,” he said. “Libraries have found that it really hasn’t changed how much they’re spending on books, on the materials themselves, nor has it changed how long somebody has to wait for a hold.”

CVL has more than 30,000 library cardholders in its four-county service area with a population of around 225,000, Harkness said.

Approximately one out of every four new patrons cancel their card after their first overdue fine, Harkness said.

“We just want people to use us,” he said, “and we want people to continue to use us, and we’re trying to look at barriers that get in the way of that.”

From fiscal year 2018 to fiscal year 2019, CVL increased overall circulation by 6%, including e-books by 67% and audio books by 35%. CVL’s market penetration of cardholders increased by 2%, Harkness said.

Here are other CVL statistics that help show the rationale for the fines-free policy:

About 12% of its customers owe a total of about $240,000 in overdue fines. But CVL’s collections agency, Unique, recovered only about $24,000 in payments toward fines and lost or damaged materials in fiscal year 2019.

About 18% of its customers owe more than $10.

About 17% of its customers have at least one item overdue beyond the 42-day (six-week) limit and now are responsible for the replacement cost. This policy will remain the same.

About 19% of its customers have had their accounts referred to CVL’s collections agency. The new policy won’t require them to pay the overdue fines, but they still must pay the replacement cost for unreturned items.

Ledger-Enquirer staff writer Mark Rice covers education and other issues related to youth. He also writes feature stories about any compelling topic. He has been reporting in Columbus and the Chattahoochee Valley for more than a quarter-century. He welcomes your local news tips and questions.