Libraries close the book on friendly overdue fees


Fees for keeping that library book a few days extra aren’t new in Alexandria, but patrons with an outstanding tab may find a collection agency calling instead of a local librarian.
Delinquent accounts, those held by patrons owing $25 or more for 60 days or longer, will end up in the hands of Unique Management Services, a multinational collection agency, starting June 15. The move comes after years of budget cuts and failed attempts to recoup overdue fines and missing material, said Rose Dawson, director of Alexandrias libraries.
On a given month, the library waits on more than $200,000 in outstanding dues, said Mark Schwartz, spokesman. Officials discussed partnering with a collection agency several years ago, but held off until they could accept past due fees by debit card. 
Now that weve made it easy for people to pay those fines, the next step is for those who havent gotten on board, Dawson said. We needed to try and recoup our money.
Alexandria isn’t the first community to seek outside help for tracking down defaulting patrons. Nearby Arlington partnered with Unique in December of 2007. They’ve freed staff from haranguing overdue account holders and provide an incentive for patrons to pay back what they owe, said Peter Golkin, spokesman. 
The collection agency tacks on a nonnegotiable $10 fee and eventually can hurt an individual’s credit, he said. Coupled with flexible payment options, patrons have every reason to return their borrowed materials or pay up before the agency gets involved, according to Golkin.
We just finally got the ability to take credit cards over the Internet so now people have even more incentives and more options of taking care of these fines and fees, Golkin said. Now you don’t even have to come into the building. We’re trying to make it as easy as possible.
The incentive is to pay the fine before collectors take over, Dawson said. They’ve tried other methods, including amnesty days to return books, but the results were underwhelming. 
Now officials hope to bolster the library system’s coffers, recover materials and offer patrons another reason to return books, movies and music. 
Its a win-win situation, Dawson said. If they bring the material back, Im happy, and if theyre willing to pay the fines for keeping it for extended periods of time so that others couldn’t take advantage of it, Im happy.
Alexandria charges 35 cents per adult book for each day it remains returned. Library staff provide patrons with due-date receipts and email warning notices as the deadline approaches. Once the materials are late, librarians will try to contact the borrowers by phone or the Internet.
Walking into the Beatley Library Monday morning, Jeanie Kim understood the library’s reasoning for hiring a collection agency, but still had misgivings. It seems extreme, she said. 
If it’s severe, like somebody took out a bunch of books; if the benefit is there, sure, she said. It’s important to get the books back and keep our library running.
Fellow patron Sheri Swerdfeger called it evolution. The library is quickly growing obsolete in a digital world, she said.
I guess they should do it they have to survive, she said.
After upgrading the library fee payment system, rolling out programs like amnesty days and contacting patrons by email or phone, Dawson hopes residents understand the decision to hire Unique was anything but easy. The system breaks if materials go missing, she said. 
Im hopeful people will recognize we put a number of things in place, Dawson said. This was not a first resort, this was a last resort for Alexandria.