Libraries try pros to get back prose Overdue: If you neglect to return books or other library items, you might get a call from a debt collector hired to persuade you.

July 09, 1998|By Donna R. Engle | Donna R. Engle,SUN STAFF

Dozens of public libraries across the nation have found a new way to get deadbeat book lovers to pay their fines and turn in their overdue books: debt collection agencies.

In Carroll and Harford counties, libraries have already tapped bill collectors and Baltimore County will soon follow. With financially strapped libraries carrying thousands of dollars in unpaid debts on the books, collecting can be a lucrative enterprise and help avoid the expense of replacing books and materials.

In the past six months, the Harford County Public Library has recovered $24,000 worth of overdue materials and fines through a collection agency.

"But what's really gratifying is that we're getting the materials back," said Audra Caplan, associate director. "We lose a lot of material, like other libraries. Our budgets are not so huge that we can afford to keep replacing."

The libraries' efforts reflect a larger trend of public agencies turning to private collectors to recover debts such as child support payments, student loans or income taxes. Baltimore County, for example, uses a collection agency for overdue parking tickets.

"There definitely is a trend," said Ben Saukko of the American Collectors Association.

A 1995 survey of 116 towns, counties and special districts by an Atlanta research group showed use of private debt collection agencies had doubled since 1987.

Baltimore-area libraries rely on fines for part of their operating income. It's even more important to get the books, magazines and videos back onto shelves, officials said.

Harford libraries, which have 800,000 items, lost $216,000 in unreturned materials and unpaid fines in fiscal 1997, Caplan said. Administrators wanted to cut the losses, but were concerned about the "tough guy" image of collection agencies before turning to Unique Management Services Inc.

The Indiana company works exclusively with libraries, said co-owner Charlie Gary, and has signed on more than 100 libraries in 30 states. He said his 26 collectors, including many students from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., take a "gentle nudge" approach.

There is also muscle behind the gentle effort. Most of its clients ask the company to file credit reports on borrowers who refuse to pay for lost items or ignore the collection effort.

"When we do it, we do it as an absolute last resort, when we've had the account 120 days and people tell us to go to Hades or they can't find the materials," Gary said.

The company draws its income from a $5 fee added to each overdue fine, which means that borrowers, rather than libraries, pay for the collection service.

Unique Management's low-key approach was important to the Carroll County library's board of trustees, which hired the company nine months ago.

Board president Jill Kartalia said the trustees would have been reluctant to hire a debt collection agency that "conformed to the stereotype of harsh people using any methods to go after people."

Reid Ward, a Unique Management collector, said his typical approach is: "I'm calling on behalf of your library and just want to be sure you know you have an overdue balance at your library. We just want to make sure your account is clear so you can use the library as you desire."

Gary recounted one case in which the borrower admitted the collector's first phone call got the overdue book from a closet to the kitchen table. The next phone call got it from the kitchen table to the library.

Carroll has a tradition of heavy library usage, with nearly 80 percent of the county's 145,000 residents carrying library cards. Unique Management has recovered $72,000 in fines and overdue materials. The library staff expects the income to level off at about $11,000 a year, now that many of the years-old cases have been resolved.

Baltimore County's library, which has 1.7 million items and a circulation of 10 million, will follow suit as soon as its computers can be made to automatically notify the agency that a final collection notice has been ignored.

The library has 146,500 items -- valued at $3.2 million -- more than four weeks overdue. It has responded to one kind of loss by limiting borrowers to eight videos at a time and has stepped up automated phone calls and letters to deadbeat borrowers.

"We've been trying to do some things without sounding like we're an armed camp," Fish said.

Anne Arundel County's library turns borrowers with more than $100 in overdue materials over to the county's law office.

That system works pretty well, said Nancy J. Choice, head of administrative and borrower services. The library refers an average of 400 to 500 people a year to the law office; 60 percent pay up.

Pub Date: 7/09/98

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