Christine Gautreau replaces books at the Northwest Library in Cape Coral. Unreturned items and uncollected overdue fees remain a problem for the Lee system, which could put the money to good use. / Andrew West/news-press.com
» 62 percent of libraries report that they are the only source of free Internet access in their communities.
» 91 percent of public libraries provide free Wi-Fi and 74 percent of libraries report use of Wi-Fi increased in 2011.
» 76 percent of libraries offer access to e-books; 39 percent of libraries provide e-readers for checkout by patrons.
» 57 percent of libraries report flat or decreased operating budgets in fiscal year 2011.
» For the third year in a row, 40 percent of state libraries report decreased state funding for public libraries.
» 65 percent of libraries report having an insufficient number of public computers to meet demand, this increases to 87 percent in urban libraries.
Source: Libraries Connect Communities: Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study, 2011-12
There is no return on almost $1 million in outstanding charges stacked up over the last five years by patrons of the Lee County Library System who failed to pay their overdue fines for books and other borrowed materials.
The $985,887 in uncollected funds could have benefited the libraries’ operations, borrowing collection and programs in a time when budgets and personnel in library systems here and across the country are being slashed.
In Lee, the library system’s budget has been cut 14.6 percent over the last five years. And personnel has been cut by more than 10 percent, according to Terri L. Crawford, deputy director of the Lee County system.
Library officials keep making efforts to crack down — gently — on the amount of uncollected fines, including:
• Dropping the threshold fine at which a patron is blocked from borrowing library materials from $35 to $25 to $10.
• Allowing people to pay fines online anytime, or by phone during business hours.
• Providing an email or phone notification before the item is due, then three more after the item is past due.
• Allowing children to “read down” the amount they owe, with the amount of time spent reading whittling the fine.
• Contracts with a library “collection” agency that uses a trademarked “Gentle Nudge” system and employs graduate divinity students to get people to pay.
Continuing library budget cuts reflect a national trend. The Public Library Funding and Technology Access Study for 2011-12 reports that for the third year in a row, 40 percent of state libraries report decreased state funding for public libraries. The study, sponsored by the American Library Association, says nationwide, 57 percent of libraries report flat or decreased operating budgets in fiscal year 2011 up from 40 percent in fiscal year 2009. Meanwhile the number of people using the library and library circulation has shot up.
In Lee County, circulation has jumped 48 percent over the last five years and the number of library card users has reached almost 300,000, or more than half the Lee County population.
“Our business is booming,” said Mindi Simon, technology and continuing education manager for the libraries.
In the Collier County Public Library system, the budget has decreased 23 percent in five years and the system lost about 30 percent of its staff, Marilyn Matthes, library director, said in an email. The system doesn’t collect information on the number of fines not paid, she said. Collier also does not use a collection agency to collect fines on overdue library materials. But the overdue fines that were paid over the last five years totals to nearly $1,374,000.
Books account for about half the circulation, and audio-visual materials the other half, said Sheldon Kaye, director of the Lee County System. Books are the category that accumulated the most overdue fines: $464,118. The overdue amount in audio-visual materials is about $354,000 for the major players: DVDs, Blu-ray Discs, books on CD and music CDs. The area growing most in popularity is e-books, Kaye said.
“It’s not good for the library or any organization to have a large amount of money owed to us,” Kaye said. But residents own the library, so essentially they owe it to themselves, he said.
Library officials walk a fine line between pursuing what is owed and the fear of alienating its patrons.
“In all of this we want to be diligent,” Kaye said, “but we also want them to use the library.”
Not everybody is a library scofflaw. Instead, “there’s a lot of people who owe a little bit of money,” Simon said. The five top overdue amounts range from $331 to $242.
Kaye prefers to emphasize the fact overdue payments over the last five years amount to $1.18 million.
“Most people are conscientious about returning their library materials,” he said.
“I love the library,” said Barbara Pruitt, 65, a snowbird who returned to the area with her husband this summer for a visit. She walked toward the South County Regional Library in Estero late last week, carrying a novel that was overdue by one day.
“I feel bad about it,” Pruitt said, clutching the change for the payment in her hand.
About 90 percent of people who owe overdue fines owe less than $25, Crawford said.
Annissa Amburgy of Lehigh Acres herded her son, 6 and daughter, 4, back to their SUV in the library parking lot after a visit. She’s been coming to the South County library for six years.
“People can’t afford to pay library charges because people don’t have jobs,” Amburgy said. “They forget. It’s not that people are trying to be negligent.”
Kaye has put in place several ways over almost six years as director to make it easier for people to pay fines and return to patrons in good standing.
“We are not in the business of denying library services,” he said.
First, he held an amnesty in 2007 so people could return overdue items without penalty. The move was successful in reinstating 56 percent of the 10,504 people who were blocked for failure to pay. And 68 percent of 31,530 overdue items were returned.
But don’t hang on to your overdue borrowed materials if you believe it might happen again.
“There won’t be one in my lifetime,” Kaye said.
Dropping the threshold fine at which a patron is blocked from borrowing from $35 to $10 over the last six years helps people keep their accounts under control, he said. The reasoning is people are more likely to pay on a $10 bill facing them instead of a $25 or $35 bill. The fine per day, per item, also has risen from 10 cents to 20 cents.
If all else fails, the Lee system turns to Unique Management Services Inc. Library Division, which provides “material recovery” for about 1,400 libraries.
The goal is to protect the good will between the library and its patrons while being able to collect overdue charges, said Kenes Bowling, manager of customer development at the U.S. office in Jefferson, Ind. Most library clients know “that when their patrons think of a collections agency, you think of draconian phone calls,” he said
So the company uses its trademarked “Gentle Nudge” process, a 120-day series of letters, calls, skip tracing and credit reporting tailored specifically for libraries. The company claims a 60 to 70 percent success rate.
It employs graduate divinity students from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary among its staff.
“It serves to, I guess, maybe demonstrate the kind of contact we make with the folks that we call,” Bowling said.
“They’re firm, but understanding,” Kaye said.
“People like you and I are not ill-willed people at all,” Bowling said. “We’ve checked out materials, we’ve been busy.” Yet others are waiting on those materials to check out and the library cannot circulate them, he said.
“Some patrons respond with the first contact, some with the second and so on,” Bowling said. “Each contact is a nudge.”