Hennepin County Library users will no longer be paying fines for overdue books, movies and music.

The Hennepin County Board is eliminating the fees to make libraries more accessible to low-income populations, the kind of users who might stay away as fines pile up.

"Whenever a constituent would hear about a city or county eliminating fees, I would get e-mails from them asking why Hennepin hasn't done it," County Board Chairwoman Marion Greene said. "This is really a way to drive usage of the libraries."

Hennepin is the latest in a growing number of counties and cities across the country that have stopped charging late fees. St. Paul and Ramsey and Washington counties in Minnesota, as well as Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, Denver and Baltimore already changed their fee policies.

Late fees made up $600,000 last year, a sliver of the library's nearly $90 million budget, officials said. The provision was included in the county's 2021 budget and sailed through without debate or objection.

The County Board initially considered removing fees in 2019, but the COVID-19 pandemic expedited the decision, and commissioners made it official last month.

The timing comes as 33 of the county's 41 library branches recently started to allow people back inside buildings to briefly browse the shelves, use computers and other resources and get support for reference questions. Since March, the libraries had been closed or only let people pick up materials outside.

The choice to end overdue fees became easier for the county after researching successful outcomes in other jurisdictions and a greater familiarity with a relatively new idea, Greene said.. The county is always trying to make strides in racial equity in every part of its work, she said.

The county had charged 5 cents a day on overdue children and teenager materials and 30 cents on adult materials. After a person accumulated more than $10 in fees, they were no longer able to check out materials, but could still use library resources.

Library staff worked with people on a partial payment to possibly reinstate library privileges until the rest of the debt was paid. In 2019, more than 72,000 people, or 13% of those with an active library card, were over the $10 limit.

The library system has more than 810,000 active cardholders, and branches were visited more than 5 million times in 2019. Even during the pandemic, more than 1.5 million books and other materials have been checked out. The libraries have also seen a 30% increase in digital downloads, which would have led to a drop in potential fees.

In January 2019, the San Francisco Public Library system released an extensive study on fee elimination that found fines disproportionately harmed customers in low-income areas and those with larger proportions of Black residents. While libraries in all areas "accrued fines at similar rates," those located in areas of lower income and education and higher number of Black people have "higher average debt amounts and more blocked users."

Beyond the racial disparity issues caused by late fees, county officials said they are also an inefficient use of staff time and don't ensure borrowed materials end up back on shelves. The county is working on how to handle people who currently have overdue balances and will still charge for unreturned items.

In 2019, the American Library Association passed a resolution urging libraries to stop charging fees. The same year, St. Paul ended overdue fines, forgave more than $2.5 million in accumulated fees and unfroze the cards of 51,000 people who had reached the fine limit.

The new fee policy reversed a steady, downward trend of material checkouts and created a double-digit percentage increase in visitors at libraries that service areas with large populations of Black, Indigenous and people of color.

"The feedback from the public was so positive," said Catherine Penkert, director of St. Paul's 13 libraries and a bookmobile. "I had families tell me they hadn't been to the library in years because they didn't want to deal with late fines."

She was hearing from senior citizens who were thankful they didn't have to go to the library to return books after a blizzard and deal with unsafe conditions. The end of fees also gave people peace of mind during the pandemic knowing they had flexibility to return materials if they became sick, she said.

Chad Helton, the new director of Hennepin County libraries, knows firsthand the impact late fees can have on a patron. Growing up in Mount Airy, N.C., he would accrue fines and then have to wait to use the library again until they offered an amnesty program.

"We shouldn't fund libraries on the mistakes of others," said Helton, who was the Los Angeles library system's first Black top administrator. "When I worked in Palo Alto, [Calif.], a fairly affluent city, people would struggle with unaffordable fees. Fines have a huge impact on a community."

David Chanen • 612-673-4465