Sunday, January 9, 2005

DAYTON, Ohio - Those unreturned books and videos are costing libraries a bundle, and they’re not going to take it anymore.

Libraries are turning to collection agencies to recover overdue materials. But strong-arm tactics are out.

“We’re not looking to scare people,” said Mark Willis, spokesman for the Dayton Metro Library. “We want these people to continue being our customers.”

Michael Gorman, president-elect of the American Library Association, thinks more and more libraries are using collection agencies. Many libraries are facing tight budgets and, at the same time, increased demand, with patrons wanting DVDs, Internet access and other services.

A sluggish economy has reduced tax revenues, leading local and state governments to cut support for libraries. City governments often are under pressure to maintain funding for what residents feel are essential services, such as road repair and police and fire services.

“All libraries are being asked to do more with less,” Mr. Gorman said. “I can understand a library that is really strapped — that extra bit of income can really help.”

The Dayton library, which has an annual budget of $21 million, estimates that it loses up to $400,000 a year in materials.

“Our budget is too tight these days to let things sit and sit like that,” he said. “Often what [patrons] take are the most popular items, and we don’t want to have to buy them again.”

The library has hired Unique Management Services Inc., based in Jeffersonville, Ind., which specializes in helping libraries get patrons to return overdue materials and pay fines. The company was started 10 years ago when two businessmen with debt-collection experience began helping local libraries try to recover materials. It has 650 libraries in the United States and Canada as clients, up from 250 six years ago.

“Our mission is to stop the bleeding,” said Kenes Bowling, manager of customer development.

The library in Bay City, Mich., is considering either contracting with Unique Management or taking an even tougher approach — urging enforcement of an ordinance that could result in the arrest of the worst offenders and sentences of up to 90 days in jail.

The library, which has an annual budget of $150,000, loses $32,000 worth of materials a year, said Frederick Paffhausen, the library’s system director. One patron has 70 overdue items with a value of $1,190.

“It’s a big drain,” Mr. Paffhausen said. “It might seem draconian to some people, but it’s truly not. It’s part of being responsible to the taxpayer.”

Libraries demand that Unique Management be nice in trying to recover the materials so as not to alienate patrons. About half of the company’s 30 callers are seminary students.

“It’s part of their ethic to be very helpful and pastoral,” Mr. Bowling said.

The company does have its limits. Patrons who don’t respond to gentle persuasion are reported to credit agencies.

That doesn’t happen often. Mr. Bowling said about 70 percent of the patrons contacted will return materials and/or pay fines.

Ann Ingoldsby, 56, of Enon, mainly borrows books on tape from the library and often returns them late.

She said she wouldn’t resent getting a call from a collection agency to return overdue materials.

“I’d do it right away,” she said. “If it’s late, it’s late.”

As a taxpayer, she supports the increased vigilance because libraries are carrying more expensive items such as videos and DVDs.

Unique Management charges libraries an average of $8.95 per account. Mr. Bowling said it typically cuts a library’s losses in half.

Mr. Willis said the Dayton library expects to pay the company about $80,000 a year and receive at least double that in returned materials and fines.

Ron Wukeson, 48, who lives next to a Dayton Metro branch, said he has no problem with libraries turning to collection agencies, as long as they first give patrons a chance to make good on their own.

“Libraries are such a wonderful bargain in the first place,” said Mr. Wukeson, whose library fines have never totaled more than $1. “I don’t think that should be abused.”

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