Toni Carter watched her son the mayor bounce with excitement as he announced an amnesty for 51,000 St. Paul library cardholders who owe money for overdue books.
"He's a book guy," explained the longtime Ramsey County commissioner.
St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter's proposal would wipe the slate clean for delinquent cardholders whose rights to borrow have been revoked since 2009. Carter not only wants to forgive more than $2.5 million in accumulated fees, he wants to eliminate late fees altogether. He is asking the City Council to approve $215,000 in additional library funding for 2019 to replace revenue collected each year in fines.
"That will unlock the doors to our libraries, so that we can truly say that everyone in our community is welcome at the St. Paul Public Library and that everyone in our community can afford to check out a book from the St. Paul Public Library," Carter said to applause Wednesday at the Rondo Community Library.
Carter has proposed a total library budget for 2019 of $20 million, a 3.2 percent increase from this year. If the City Council approves Carter's plan in October, officials say that St. Paul will join Washington County and other cities outside Minnesota, including Salt Lake City, Nashville and Eau Claire, Wis., in eliminating late fees.
For years, St. Paul Public Library staff members have discussed eliminating late fees as a way to make the library accessible to everyone. After more than six months of research, including interviews with library users, Carter joined forces with library staff to propose doing away with the fees.
Library users would still be asked to pay for lost or damaged items.
The mayor, who as a child spent hours curled up with books at the public library near his house, said he met many people across the city who admitted they haven't been to the library in years because of late fees. It's time, he said, to let them come back.
"Between the covers of a good library book every single child in every single part of our city can travel the world — from the bottom of the ocean to the edge of the galaxy, and back. For free," Carter said. "But, you know what? That's not really the case."
Nearly one in five St. Paul library cardholders are blocked because of overdue fines, staff research showed. At the Rondo library, more than a third of registered cards are blocked, in keeping with research that showed the percentage of blocked cards is higher in poorer neighborhoods.
Because of the long-standing practice of levying fines for overdue books and then revoking privileges for unpaid fines, library workers said many families have been forced to choose between paying library fines or paying for other necessities.
Pang Yang, a library project manager who said she has worked at every library in the city, recalled a young mother with three children coming into the library who had accumulated fines for a book she'd probably checked out as a teenager and forgotten. She was there to get books for her daughter for the start of school.
"As I was telling her about the fines, I could see the physical anxiety take over her body," Yang said, saying she later overheard the mother and daughter trying to decide between paying the fines or getting dinner. "People shouldn't have to decide what they are going to feed: their bellies or their brains."
Antwan "A.J." Ragland, who works at the Arlington Hills Library, said the issue hits low-income families the hardest — families whose primary access to books and other information is through the library. He said it's heartbreaking to refuse to let a child check out a book because a member of his or her family has overdue fines.
The mayor's proposal, Ragland said, "will change lives in a way that I don't even think we can understand. This will be so incredible."
Carter said widespread access to a strong library system is at the center of his administration's three pillars: public safety, by giving children positive places to go and activities to do; lifelong learning, by giving adults access to information; and economic justice, by being conduits for people starting businesses or doing their taxes.
"The library is so much more than a collection of books," Carter said. "This is a center of the community."
James Walsh • 612-673-7428