- The Washington Times - Monday, January 10, 2005


The cash-strapped D.C. Public Library system is considering hiring a private collection agency to recover late fees and overdue resources that can cost the library hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.

“We are in the process of evaluating our collection system,” said Monica Lewis, spokeswoman for the D.C. Public Library. “We’re looking at all different options.”

According to Ms. Lewis, the library system — which has 27 branches — collected $105,678 in late fees in fiscal 2004.

Meanwhile, three other local jurisdictions have used a private collection agency for late fees for several years and report noteworthy results.

Montgomery County’s public library collected $242,000 in late fees in fiscal 2004 and Fairfax County’s $1.5 million. Prince George’s County had no figures available on late fees, but “the return of materials has soared,” spokeswoman Bridget Warren said.

In addition, Fairfax County — the region’s largest and most populous jurisdiction — has collected more than a $1 million in late fees for the past three fiscal years.

“We’re looking to gear back up and into that again [this year],” said Lois Kirkpatrick, spokeswoman for Fairfax’s library system, which has employed a collection agency for the past eight years.

The three counties use Unique Management Services Inc. for their collection efforts. The company, which is based in Jefforsonville, Ind., specializes in collection services for libraries, sending letters to delinquent library patrons requesting speedy payment of late fees and quick return of borrowed resources such as books, DVDs and videotapes.

According to Unique Management’s Web site (www.unique-mgmt.com), libraries can expect a 50 percent to 75 percent response rate from the patrons it contacts. The company charges at least $8.95 for each account it handles for a library.

Montgomery County’s library system has achieved a 60 percent response rate from borrowers after receiving a letter from Unique Management, said spokeswoman Rita Gale.

Mrs. Warren said delinquent patrons seem to respond more quickly when contacted by a collection agency rather than by library staffers.

Libraries across the country have increasingly used collection agencies as their budgets have shrunk, according to the American Library Association (ALA), based in Chicago.

“Libraries are dealing with really tight budgets,” ALA spokeswoman Larra Clark said. “If they don’t get their materials back, they don’t have the money to replace them.”

Ms. Clark said the ALA does not keep track of who employs collection agencies among the country’s 16,000 libraries but has stopped short of advocating the use of collection letters. “Our job is to advocate the best library services possible,” she said, adding that it’s up to library managers to decide whether they need collection agencies.

The D.C. Public Library system, which had a $25.8 million budget in fiscal 2004, has lost millions of dollars in budget cuts and has operated with reduced hours and fewer staffers.

As recently as last month, D.C. Council members weighed plans to inject more money into the library system in connection with a bill for building a ballpark in Southeast. The library plans eventually were scrapped.

But council support for improving the District’s libraries remains strong, even if that includes using a collection agency.

“I encourage it,” said council member Jim Graham, the Ward 1 Democrat who sponsored library legislation during the baseball negotiations. “I think it should be done. … Certainly, our library is in a pitiful financial situation.”

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