San Jose Talks Amnesty for $6.8 Million in Past-Due Library Fees

The full tally of what people owe the San Jose Public Library for past-due books, CDs and DVDs: $6.8 million.

Four of these cardholders have racked up more than $5,000 in fees. Three have maxed out their bill at $1,000.

The question posed to the City Council on Tuesday is how to recover as much of that as possible without scaring patrons away.

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.

Mayor Sam Liccardo, along with council members Magdalena Carrasco and Raul Peralez, suggested reducing the number of items a cardholder could check out from 100 to 25. That’s more in line with what’s allowed in other cities, they noted.

They also want the city to explore the idea of settling fines over $100, as well as 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.”

Budget cuts have taken a toll on San Jose libraries in recent years, limiting hours and services and making up for some of the loss by upping fines, which in 2010 went from 25 cents to 50 cents a day. The city allows a three-week borrowing window and lets fees tick up to $20.

By last fall, some 40 percent 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.

Unfortunately, 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.

Since 2013, the city has tried to restore some of those lost library services. An audit of library hours and operations prompted the city to come up with a more efficient staffing model in 2014. Later that same year, voters overwhelmingly approved a 25-year library parcel tax—it was called Measure B, which is in no way confusing.

In 2015, the city budgeted to expand library hours from four to six days a week at all branches. This spring, the city celebrated the opening of its 23rd branch in Village Square, which lies in San Jose’s Evergreen neighborhood.

But parents and teachers have told the city that kids have been unable to get library cards because their families are afraid of the fines. Councilman Pierluigi Oliverio brought up the idea of amnesty back in March when the $6.8 million figure first came up in a council subcommittee. But critics have challenged the proposal as a free pass for scofflaws.

Since then, the city has looked for ideas from other communities to figure out how to move forward. The approaches vary wildly from city to city, as Slate reported a few months back. Some offer no-questions-asked return periods. Others resort to public shaming, printing names of their biggest debtors in local newspapers. Some libraries make personal calls, summon police or pass debt on to collection agencies.

To prevent people from falling behind in the future, San Jose will also consider sending text messages to remind borrowers when books are due and allow them to extend the return date. Coming up next year, patrons may see their fines shrink to 25 cents a day, with the maximum overdue fine going from $20 an item to just $5.

More from the San Jose City Council agenda for May 17, 2016:

  • A $790,000 transportation grant will allow the city to build new bike paths and handicap-accessible sidewalk ramps throughout the city.
  • San Jose has set aside $250,000 and formed five subcommittees to carry out a three-year plan to make the city more welcoming to immigrants. The city garnered widespread attention for its efforts when it formed an Office of Immigrant Affairs and teamed up with the White House as part of a national campaign to build more welcoming communities. Some goals for the first year include improving translation services and encouraging civic engagement among foreign-born residents.
  • Nearly half the council signed on to a resolution to stop city-sponsored travel to North Carolina and Mississippi, states that recently passed anti-LGBT laws. The ban would put San Jose in line with dozens of jurisdictions as well as private companies taking a stand against discriminatory legislation. “These states previously had laws protecting the rights of these people, but overturned them with these two bills,” the resolution reads. “Every person regardless of sexual orientation, sexuality, or gender expression should be valued in our community. These acts do not reflect the values that we promote in the City of San Jose.”

WHAT: City Council meets
WHEN: 1:30pm Tuesday
WHERE: City Hall, 200 E. Santa Clara St., San Jose
INFO: City Clerk, 408.535.1260

Jennifer Wadsworth is the former news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.


  1. “San Jose has set aside $250,000 and formed five subcommittees to carry out a three-year plan to make the city more welcoming to immigrants.” Is that quarter mil to be used for welcoming illegal immigrants? If so, I’d rather it be spent to welcome 2 more cops.

  2. “Four of these individuals have racked up more than $5,000 in fees. Three have maxed out their bill at $1,000.” These folks should be prosecuted for grand theft, and banned from ever checking out anything from the library again.

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