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SF public library hires bill collector to track down patrons with large overdue fines

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A man returns his book outside the San Francisco Public Library on Monday. (Daniel Kim/Special to S.F. Examiner)
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Forgiveness has its limits at the San Francisco Public Library.

After offering a six-week fine amnesty period at the start of the year in which patrons could return overdue books without having to pay penalties, library officials are now turning over the records of about 13,000 patrons who owe more than $100 in overdue fines and fees to a bill collector, according to report last week from City Librarian Luis Herrera.

In the first-ever partnership, the library is paying the Office of Treasurer and Tax Collector’s Bureau of Delinquent Revenue $72,714 to collect on debts — some of which are 25 years old — in what’s being called the Collections Initiative Pilot.

The Tax Collector’s Bureau of Delinquent Revenue is The City’s official debt collector, which goes after people who owe payments for such things as ambulance and hospital bills from San Francisco General Hospital and boasts an average collection rate of 29 percent.

“This initiative is the latest in our efforts to remove barriers to access and to address our outstanding liability,” Cathy Delneo, the San Francisco Public Library’s chief of branches, told the Library Commission last week. Those who owe more than $10 are prohibited from borrowing more materials, but they can use other resources like computers.

There are varying opinions about whether there should be overdue fines at libraries at all. For instance, the Columbus Metropolitan Library  in Ohio began this year no longer charging overdue fines.

“Removing barriers to get more materials into the hands of more customers brings us closer to achieving our vision of a thriving community where wisdom prevails,” Columbus Metropolitan Library CEO Patrick Losinski said in a December 2016 statement.

Instead of fines, this library blocks library cards for those with overdue books of 21 or more days. If the item isn’t returned after 35 days, the patron is charged a replacement fee, but the fee is removed if the item is returned.

San Francisco Public Library officials aren’t talking about doing away with fines or fees just yet. 

The library, which has a $130 million annual budget, collected $445,590 in fines and fees last fiscal year. Overdue fines are currently 10 cents daily with a maximum of $5. Replacement fees are then assessed for items deemed lost — up to $35 if the item is a hardcover adult book — after they have been kept out more than 60 days past their due date.

But a fine-free library system could be coming.

“Ultimately, going fine free [for overdue items] is the vision of SFPL,” San Francisco Public Library spokesperson Katherine Jardine told the San Francisco Examiner on Monday in an email. “It has been looked into by staff, but requires more study and discussion as it is a policy decision for the Library Commission and ultimately a decision to be made by the Board of Supervisors.”

Earlier this year, more than 10,000 patrons took advantage of the fine amnesty by returning 699,563 materials and having forgiven $329,797 in penalties. Borrowing privileges were reinstated for 5,067 patrons. The value of the items returned was $236,490.

But the San Francisco Public Library still has $6.4 million in outstanding fines, fees and billed and lost items, according to a report presented Thursday by library staff to the Library Commission. Nearly 80 percent of the total liability is for billed items.

The 13,000 patrons who owe more than $100 in fines or fees represent just 2 percent of the total borrowers, but account for 53 percent of the outstanding fees. There are 744,837 registered borrowers.

Of those owing $100 or more, 5,349 have inactive accounts, meaning they haven’t used their library cards to access computers.

“We surmise that many patrons who owe money to the library mistakenly think that they cannot use any library resources, even the public computers, and that’s just not true,” Delneo said.

The collection process will allow for payment plans and a chance to negotiate a lower amount than owed, something librarian staff are not authorized to do.

Zoe Dunning, a library commissioner, said she had concerns about the amounts the collection agency would go after when items could be obsolete after so many years and not worth the value of what was billed at the time.

“You have to opt in to negotiate it,” Dunning said. “Not necessarily everyone is equipped to enter into negotiation when the tax collector calls them. They are scared, they are worried about it or whatever.”

Library staff sought to allay those concerns. They said the collectors will be trained to take into consideration depreciation in value, but they said vetting the fines owed prior to the collection process would be too time consuming.

The Bureau of Delinquent Revenue will direct mail three notices and send three email notifications to library patrons seeking to collect over a period of time beginning in January. The effort will not impact a person’s credit score.

When the process concludes in July 2018, library officials will discuss continuing to use the collection service.

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