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Largo Library using collection agency

Keep that book or video out too long past its due date and the agency will inform credit bureaus.

By LORRI HELFAND
Published October 1, 2004

LARGO - You keep forgetting to return your library book, but it's no big deal, right? Wrong.

If you ignore notices from the Largo Library, your bill might be turned over to a collection agency.

Largo Library is joining the Tarpon Springs and Oldsmar public libraries to try out a credit agency called Unique Management Services, which specializes in retrieving overdue library materials across the country.

All three libraries will begin the program Monday.

"I'm sorry we even have to use it, but we have tried all of the traditional ways of getting people to return materials and it works less and less," said Marion Rodriguez, Largo Library's circulation supervisor.

Previously, the library called on the help of the Largo Police Department. After a few late notices, names were sent to the department, and officers would give overdue patrons a friendly call to remind them to pay up and return the items.

No legal action was taken, but library administrators hoped an authoritative voice would nudge them into action, Rodriguez said.

Late fees for books are 10 cents per day. For videos, the late fees are $1 per day, and there is a maximum of $5 per item. Rodriguez said around 2,400 items out of the library's annual circulation of about 780,000 items were not returned last year. While that might sound like a small percentage, Rodriguez said, the cost to replace materials adds up and some lost items are no longer available.

"The biggest need is to retrieve our library materials," said Casey McPhee, assistant director of the Largo Library. "That is what costs us so much money. We would prefer to get those materials back."

Unique Management Services, a 10-year-old company, based in Jeffersonville, Ind., works with more than 600 libraries throughout the United States and Canada. More than a dozen Florida libraries have been using the service, which markets itself as a kinder, gentler collection agency that partners only with libraries.

Pasco County libraries have used the system since 1997 and St. Petersburg and Tampa libraries started using it five years ago.

Marcee Challener, manager of materials and circulation services for Hillsborough County libraries, said the service has been effective.

"People seem to really respond to that kind of prompting," Challener said. "We believe that more materials are being returned."

Largo Library sends out notices when items are 10 and 25 days overdue and bills are sent out after 45 days. During the 90-day trial period, information will be turned over to the collection agency when items are still out after 55 days.

The agency contacts patrons and asks them to contact their library about overdue items. Any payments are paid directly to the libraries, not the agency, and the libraries have software, which helps the agency monitor accounts.

The library will pay Unique Management $7.95 for each account that is turned over for collection, and patrons will be charged an additional late fee of $10.

If the library sticks with the program, serious slackers could end up with a blemish on their credit report. But Kenes Bowling, manager of customer development for the credit agency, said his company waits 120 days after it receives accounts before informing credit bureaus about outstanding bills.

"Our approach is gentle and respectful. We want the library to recover materials. We also want patrons to use the library again," Bowling said.

Some patrons, such as David Way, 67, have no problem with a collection agency stepping in. He just hopes the agency will be as gentle as it claims to be.

"People ought to be responsible enough to get books back on time," Way said.

But Herbert Jerrido, 34, thought the idea was heavy handed for something as benign as a an overdue book and he doesn't want the new policy to discourage patrons.

"You don't want them fearful of the library," Jerrido said.

Lorri Helfand can be reached at 445-4155 or at lorri@sptimes.com

[Last modified October 1, 2004, 00:10:26]


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