Got an overdue library book? In some NJ counties, the penalties are serious
Keeping a library book or movie beyond its due date is no big deal in some portions of the Garden State. But in others, the small daily fines can get you in trouble and debt over time.
More than 41 million visits were made to New Jersey public libraries in 2016. That means plenty of opportunity for racked-up late fees and material that may never be returned.
Patrons of the Hunterdon County Library face a 10 cent fine per day for most overdue materials, according to the facility's web site. But those who fail to return an item and/or pay for it "will be subject to legal proceedings for theft." The library also notes a $10 service fee is applied to delinquent accounts referred to the library's collection agency.
The same fee is levied in Ocean County on delinquent accounts. A customer's borrowing privileges are suspended when unpaid fines exceed $25.
Pat Tumulty, executive director of the New Jersey Library Association, said delinquent patrons can be brought to small claims court if the fee total is sufficient, but that's a rare occurrence. You are permitted to check out as many as 99 books at one time from some facilities, so developing a hefty bill doesn't take much effort.
"I think the percentage of books not returned is relatively small when you look at how many millions of books are circulated and items are circulated every year," Tumulty said.
Ocean County's public library system — the largest in the state — circulated its items nearly 4.2 million times in 2016. Only .0015 percent of items were not returned, according to supervising librarian Kate Sanchez.
Tumulty said late fees are a small percentage of a library's budget. At times, libraries may offer penalty-free return periods or a chance for patrons to donate meals to a food bank instead of paying their fine.
"We're not hoping people keep books out longer so we can charge up the fines," Tumulty said. "We want them to be returned on time so the next person can use them."
Libraries and library systems generally put a cap on how much a user can be charged per overdue item, she said.
There's a $10 maximum late fee per book, audiobook and DVD in Middlesex County. On its website, the Mercer County Library System spells out the maximum fines and replacement costs for all items. Replacements come with a processing fee. The max fine is $5 per item in Morris County.
Tumulty noted there's a conversation on the national level to eliminate fines, at least for items checked out by children. She said that move could be considered in New Jersey as well.
A question on the November ballot will ask voters to approve $125 million in bonds to finance capital projects at the state's public libraries.
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