Library decides to refer delinquent patrons' accounts to collection agency

The Baltimore Sun

They may be great fodder for an episode of Seinfeld, but long-overdue books and mounting fines are no laughing matter to Anne Arundel County librarians.

Starting Monday, the library system will begin referring accounts with more than $35 due to a collection agency that specializes in bringing in revenue and recovering outstanding books, movies and other materials.

"We've done just about everything that we can do on our end with the staff and the resources that we have," said library spokeswoman Laurie Hayes. "These materials belong to the taxpayers and to our patrons. They belong on the shelves."

Referring customers to collection agencies is nothing new for private lenders and large corporations. However, libraries have a more delicate relationship with their clients because their mission is to provide information, not to profit.

On the other hand, they are not out to lose money. Anne Arundel's 15 branches are missing about 24,500 pieces of material with a replacement cost of $482,000 -- a substantial amount for an agency operating on $13 million annually.

That's why library trustees, following the leads of Baltimore, Montgomery and Charles counties, decided to turn to Unique Management Services, a company with about 875 clients in the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom.

There is no upfront cost to the county. It pays $8.95 for each collection initiated, and the company then charges a $10 service fee to each errant library patron.

Hayes said the company's tactics range from "incredibly polite to progressively more stern."

"There are no concrete boots. Nobody's going to end up on the bottom of the bay," Hayes said. "They are not going about this in the way a stereotypical collection agency would."

Indiana-based Unique's collection process starts with a series of letters alerting patrons to their balances. If those don't work, the company runs a call center staffed in part by students from a nearby seminary school who are trained in pastoral counseling.

"We treat people very gently, very professionally and appeal to them to do the right thing," said Kenes Bowling, manager of customer development. "It's about getting the materials back, collecting the fines, but also about putting the patron back in good standing at the libraries."

Last year, Anne Arundel collected about $533,000 in fines. Those who didn't pay were referred to the county Office of Law, which sent out additional fee notices.

Of the library's 350,000 registered borrowers, Hayes said, about 1,100 will be turned over to Unique on Monday. The most owed is about $900, which is hefty considering the maximum fine per item -- including DVDs --is $6.

Bowling's agency usually handles much smaller penalties. Libraries, including Anne Arundel, generally cap their late fees at the replacement cost and stop lending to people who owe more than a pre-determined amount.

The majority of those who owe libraries are busy patrons who lose track of their books or forget to pay small fines that eventually add up to big bills. Bowling said his company collects payment from 55 percent to 70 percent of them, including the $10 service charge tacked on to cover the library's collection costs.

Those who do not pay after six months may be referred to the nation's three major credit-reporting bureaus. A mark on a delinquent borrower's report could affect their ability to get credit cards or loans for cars or houses.

"I think that's terrible, and it'll discourage people from coming to the library," said Nancy Pyles, who was visiting the Annapolis library yesterday with her 10-month-old grandniece.

Pyles said she's had a few fines because she reads a dozen books a week. There was that one time she was sure she'd returned a book, but the library thought differently. She just paid the fine. Then there was that time her car was stolen, and, of course, there were library books in it. She paid the fine then too.

In business for 12 years, Unique has fielded its share of elaborate excuses. One patron claimed he hadn't brought his books back because they were the exact height needed to hold up a leg of his table. Another woman claimed her "bad" alternate personality had taken the books, Bowling recalled.

Hayes knows mistakes happen. She once lost a county book and paid for it, only to find it behind her couch when she moved.

Susan Whaley, head of circulation at the Annapolis library, said she's been slipping a flier about the policy change to patrons who might qualify but hasn't gotten any negative feedback -- at least not to her face.

"We are thinking that a lot of materials will be returned to the library," she said.

Sun reporter Nia-Malika Henderson contributed to this article.

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