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Oldsmar library hires collection agency to track down books, fees

Times have changed since 1919, when the Woman's Club of Oldsmar opened the first Oldsmar Library in a small house on Exeter Street.

When a book was out too long, the club knew just where to find the scofflaw.

"Twenty years ago, we had service only for Oldsmar residents, and it was a little easier to keep track of who had what," said Bert Weber, Oldsmar Public Library director.

That's much harder now, so Oldsmar is joining the ranks of local libraries that use a collection agency to help retrieve lost books and collect overdue fines.

Libraries that use Unique Management Services, which works only with libraries, praise its results. Oldsmar and Tarpon Springs will soon find out.

The collection agency also is being considered by other local libraries, including Clearwater's, which made headlines in the late 1990s with the arrests of three people who refused to return overdue materials and didn't appear in court.

Clearwater no longer uses the courts to pursue overdue collections, library director John Szabo said. City officials have had an initial meeting with Unique Management Systems, he said.

Other library officials say the company doesn't treat delinquent patrons like criminals.

"They do a soft and gentle approach," said Barbara Ponce, Pinellas Park community activities administrator and library director. The Pinellas Park Public Library recently completed a trial run of about six months with Unique Management Services.

Cities are turning to collection services because the cost of books is skyrocketing and they are seeing many library users from outside their own communities.

Today, 40 percent of the Oldsmar Public Library's patrons don't live in Oldsmar. With Pinellas County's library cooperative, patrons can check out materials near their jobs or wherever a participating library is convenient. Weber thinks that's great, but it makes it easier to lose books and harder to find those responsible.

"They have a car accident, they get a divorce, they change jobs and they forget about it," she said.

Or they move away, and revoking their library cards is no threat.

Libraries in Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties use Unique Management Services.

"Somehow, a letter from a collection agency has a lot more impact than one from the library director," said Elaine Birkinshaw, library special projects manager for St. Petersburg's library system.

The company is based in Jeffersonville, Ind., and was founded nearly a decade ago by two partners who had worked in the debt collection business. It has more than 500 clients in 40 states and Canada, including libraries in Orlando, Jacksonville and Brevard County, said Kenes Bowling, manager of customer development.

The collection agency can go to credit companies and find users who have moved to other areas. Figures from the St. Petersburg Public Library say the library recovers $3.79 in returned materials or cash for every $1 it spends on collection agency fees.

"It has been excellent," said Linda Allen, libraries director for the Pasco County Library System. "We have recovered many hundreds of thousands of dollars of materials that we would otherwise not have gotten back."

Tarpon Springs and Oldsmar public libraries will both start with Unique Management Services on Oct. 4. Weber went into how the program will work in Oldsmar.

The library will call or send overdue notices when books or other materials are overdue 10 days and 25 days. At 45 days, the library will send out a bill to replace the item, plus a $5 overdue fee. Overdue fees are capped at $5.

At 60 days overdue, the collection agency will send out a bill and the library user will have two weeks to respond, Weber said. The bill will include an additional $10 late fee. After that, if Oldsmar chooses, the agency could eventually put the bill on the user's credit reports as past due.

"We're showing them that there are consequences and we can find them," Weber said.

Weber said the library will pay the collection agency about $7.50 for every account that it pursues. An account is an individual library user, who could have several books out. The agency guarantees that the fees it collects will not be any higher than the fines it retrieves from library users.

Other libraries seriously considering the system include Clearwater's and Largo's. Safety Harbor and Dunedin's libraries may consider it in the future, when current projects wind down.

Palm Harbor will not.

"Palm Harbor Library has no intention of using a collection agency," director Gene Coppola said. "We don't see a need for it at this time."

Times photographer Douglas R. Clifford contributed to this report.