Library to become more agressive in collecting fines

By Courtney Mahoney

The Ottawa Public Library is updating its software and hiring a new collection agency in an aggressive effort to recover more of the $2.5 million owed in late fees and penalties.

The system they have used since amalgamation is outdated and the new program will begin in the spring of 2005.

“Last budget, a number of people who did not support the library funding were accusing the library of being too lenient on fine collection,” says Rick Chiarelli, chair of the library board.

Unique Management Services, the new collection agency, has a recovery rate from 50 to 75 per cent, which is higher than the library’s current system. The library will receive a full refund from accounts that are cleared within 60 days. McGrath Canada, the current collection agency, only gave the library 30 days to receive the money without deduction.

The library will still contact patrons using their automated telephone service and a letter will still be sent on behalf of the library after the 45-day limit. All accounts are suspended once they reach $35.

Currently, the library only hires a collection agency when an account is $75 or more. In the spring this limit will be dropped to $40.

But this is not the only advantage of the new system, says Linda Standing, library manager of circulation services. The new software upgrade will handle account information electronically, meaning less work for library employees.

“This module will increase efficiency for staff in being able to do away with a lot of paper handling,” says Standing. “So there are savings being achieved.”

But despite the efforts to collect more outstanding fees, some patrons say the library never contacted them about their late fees.

Josh McJannett, a student at Carleton University, had several overdue books a few years ago and received his first warning from a collection agency saying he owed around $170.

He says he never received a phone call, but admits his number had an extension, so the automated service probably could not reach him.

But receiving a letter from a collection agency made him “a little nervous.”

McJannett returned the books and the library waived his fines. He never had to pay the remaining amount of overdue charges.

“The message they are sending out is that if you leave them long enough, you won’t have to pay anything,” says McJannett.

He has since renewed his card and used it several times without any problems.

The library will never receive the full $2.5 million it is owed, explains Standing. Most of those charges are for lost material and if the book is returned the amount owed by the patron decreases, she says.

It is estimated that half of what a collection agency recovers will be the return of lost items. The rest is revenue.

“It is more important to me that we get the material back,” says Standing. “Because that is where the big dollar value is in these outstanding accounts.”

Under the old system the library has collected $160,000 more in fines than expected this year.

Even with the new program, the amount owed by patrons will never be erased, says Chiarelli.

“We’re doing everything we can to collect…it just may be that in a system this size you will always have $1 million owing.”

The new system is already in use in Vancouver and Toronto.

Standing estimates a six-year turnover for the program because old accounts will still remain with McGrath Canada. Once an account hits the seven-year point it becomes inactive and is illegal to pursue.

Standing says due to amalgamation many of the accounts will be coming up at that point within the next few years.