Library eliminating late fines,planning major repair for basement flooding

The Great Falls Public Library board voted unanimously to eliminate late fines and forgive all outstanding late fees during their May 26 meeting.

Staff and the board had been considering the move for months and recently an anonymous donor offered $85,000 to the library, contingent on the elimination of late fees.

Staff estimates that there is about $85,000 in outstanding unpaid fines, but those were never calculated in budgets as revenue so it doesn’t represent a loss, according to staff.

The library typically brings in $10,000, or about 0.07 percent of their budget, in late fines annually so staff is working on fundraising, including the fine free fun run that started last year, to offset that revenue loss.

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The library charged 10 cents for most materials per day not returned by their due date. A patron account with more than $5 in late fines is blocked from checking out or renewing items.

Susie McIntyre, library director, said late fines are a barrier to library usage and during the board’s February meeting, she said staff did a lot of community outreach last summer and a third to half of the people they talked to said they had a library card, but couldn’t use it because of late fines.

Patrons still have to return materials or pay for replacements and could lose library privileges until items are returned or fees paid.

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During the COVID-19 closures, the library hasn’t been charging late fines.

McIntyre told board members during their May 26 meeting that the library often gets donations and then staff has to figure out a project for those funds, so going forward, donations could be applied to covering the late fines.

McIntyre said staff is looking at options to show patrons in their accounts what the late fine would have been and expect some to donate that much or more to help continue forgiving late fines. She said some libraries have seen donations and book returns increase when late fines are eliminated.

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Bozeman, Kalispell and Helena libraries recently eliminated late fines, and Billings and Missoula are considering it, McIntyre told the board.

The 10 cents per day isn’t a motivation to return items, McIntyre said, and libraries that have done studies on it are able to track their demographics and know that most unpaid fines are in low income areas.

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The donor has agreed to let the library use the donation for the basement flooding mitigation project currently in the works that was estimated around $165,000 during an energy audit a few years ago.

The library is working with a local engineering firm to get estimates on cost and scope of work to address basement flooding, including a leak around the storm drain pipe and the water rising through cracks and expansion joints in the basement concrete.

The project also includes addressing ground water that’s seeping into the basement with sump pumps and a french drain.

The project will require trenching into the street and fixing what is at least a bent pipe and possible a main break in the middle of 2nd Avenue North.

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In recent years, library staff has had to block water from gushing into the basement with mops and buckets every time it rains and the water is likely damaging the building, staff has said.

After the basement flooding project, the next expected major capital improvement project is the roof replacement, which could be $100,000 to $300,000.

The library might need to go out for a levy to fund those major repairs and operations, McIntyre said.

The Great Falls library is underfunded compared to the other big Montana cities and low staffing is a concern, McIntyre said.

Currently, the library gets 9 mills in property taxes and for many years, the city gave another two mills on top of that. The county also contributes funding.

The library is also getting closer to replacing the Bookmobile and has an estimate for $191,000.

The purchase contract will go to the City Commission for their June 2 meeting.

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The new vehicle will include hotspot technology and staff is applying for funding through the city’s Community Development Block Grant program.

Library staff is also looking at options to convert the back book drop in the alley into a drive through area for patrons to pick up holds.

McIntyre said staff is working with the city planning department on the options, which would likely include converting at least half the alley to a one-way.

McIntyre said it probably wouldn’t be staffed all the time but in the event of another wave of COVID-19 or future emergency situations, it would make it easier to handle books, she said.

“I think the drive through is going to be fantastically popular regardless of COVID,” McIntyre told the board during the May 26 meeting.

She said she doesn’t know of other libraries with a drive-through and she envisions it as a space for picking up holds only with a bell to call for assistance since it wouldn’t be staffed full time.