The Hamilton Township Free Public Library in New Jersey recently hired collection agency Unique Management Services Inc. to pursue delinquent patrons who collectively owe the library an estimated $200,000 in unpaid fines imposed for overdue books and materials.

Unique Management Services contracts with large public libraries nationwide, including in Denver, Houston, Salt Lake and San Diego. 

The library is located in Hamilton Township, the ninth-largest city in New Jersey.

Library Director Susan Sternberg, likely aware of the public relations problems that often come along with outsourcing collections, said the library essentially considers not returning library books and materials to be stealing. Some former patrons owe the library several thousand dollars. “That’s not even petty anymore. That’s grand theft and stealing from a government entity is not something to ignore,” she said. Sternberg pursued hiring a collection agency a year ago, after plans for a library fundraiser revealed the $200,000 in fines or lost materials. The pursuit of library delinquents is a four-step process, she said. Approximately 60 days after the due date, the library will forward a patron's account info to Unique Management, which calls and sends three letters over a four-month period. If there is no response, the agency will report the debt to credit reporting agencies. The agency first requests - rather than demanding payment - that people visit the library and attempt to settle overdue fine. Unique Management does not negotiate debt repayments for the library.

The library might choose to accept returns and call the account settled - except for processing fees - but that decision is on a case-by-case basis. The book or DVD or CD must be returned in the same condition, for example, and importantly must still be relevant material. 

If someone tries to return a 2008 SAT study guide, the library will not accept it, but might decide to accept a 2015 SAT study guide.

Unique Management has already contacted people with late materials from the first half of 2014. An estimated 34% have responded - although the breakdown of those responses wasn’t immediately known. The process likely will go back three years as library cards expire on a three-year cycle. 

The library pays an $8.95 fee for each record sent to Unique Management regardless of whether any money is collected. Each person who settles pays the library a $10 account management fee, which covers the cost of hiring the agency. 

Without hiring an agency, the library has few options for pursuing outstanding fines - essentially limited to suspending a patron’s library access. However, a change of address stops that process. 

Unique Management will use the federal change of address database to track down patrons who have left Hamilton. The agency guarantees a specific percentage return and won't collect its fees until it is met.


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