Library Moves to Collect Old Fines Days Before Discontinuing Overdue Fines

Beverly Hills library collects a fine of 25¢ for each day that an adult book, CD or DVD is overdue. Those quarters add up and some households are in debt. Now the city is serious about collecting. Last week borrowers in arrears received an emailed notice threatening to refer that debt to a collection agency…with only ten days notice and an additional 40% added for referring it to collections. Libraries around the country have discontinued overdue fines and — wait for it! — so has our library as of July 1st. So why put the strong-arm on households in the 11th hour?

The email from the library came out of the blue. “This statement shows the outstanding charges on your account,” said the notice. “Please respond within 10 days to avoid the possibility of having your account referred to our collection agency.” Ten days is not much time to respond. Emails get overlooked. Besides, the library’s policy is to wait at least 14 days before sending an account to collections.

As it happens the materials in question were returned and my borrower account was allowed to expire. The last time I heard from the library was in 2018 when I was advised that my bill was $33 and it was sent to collections. I have not heard from the library in nearly four years.

No matter. It appears that the city is putting the strong-arm on library borrowers with old arrears even if that debt was incurred years ago and already sent to collections. Plus the library slaps on an additional 40% surcharge when the debt is referred to collections.

Pay-up or get tossed to the lions!

Does City Hall need my $33 — or a few bucks from any other borrowers in arrears? General fund revenues this fiscal year are up this year because the city collected $46.9 million more in taxes and fees than was expected, according to a Finance Department. “The City’s revenues have significantly recovered,” said the Finance deputy director.

Moreover, the 11th hour to collect old arrears comes just days before the Beverly Hills library discontinues overdue fines altogether. Starting July 1st there is no fine for either children’s or adult’s overdue materials. Heck, that’s just few days away. Look, I understand that a debt is a debt, but it seems a little bit petty that the library is putting the strong-arm on deadbeat borrowers now.

Library Fines are Passé

Burbank and Los Angeles no longer charge or collect overdue fines and neither does Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston and New York. According to the research that’s for a good reason: accumulated fines prevent borrowers from checking-out materials and fines in arrears actually discourage the return of checked-out materials.

Libraries care less about the money owed than recovering materials that are inconvenient and expensive to replace. “Fines don’t bring back books,” said City Librarian Karen Buth in her annual report to the city’s Library Board of Trustees. (The trustees are city councilmembers pretending to wear a different hat). “Fine-free levels the playing-field for all library patrons and encourages the safe return of library materials,” she added.

Buth is referring to the social equity aspect of library fines. When fines stack up it disproportionately burdens lower-income households…and especially those with children. These households already find it difficult to pay the bills. Consider that the cost of rental housing is rising just like the cost of every other necessity. Now imagine that a creditor comes calling for an overdue fine of thirty bucks.

Here’s the mystery: why put the arm on borrower for rent arrears at the moment when those fines are going away? The library itself has conceded that fines are bad for business!

Taking That Last Opportunity to Collect…

The Beverly Hills library hasn’t yet announced the fine-free policy. I only learned about the policy change after a tip that the library was ending the fines. Indeed the city’s Schedule of Taxes and Fees that takes effect on July 1st confirms it: the section for library fees is no longer there.

Library fees schedule FY2021-22
Now you see overdue fines in the Beverly Hills library 2021-22 fee schedule….

 

Library fees schedule FY2022-23
…Now you don’t see fines because as of July 1st all overdue fines are abolished in this 2022-23 fiscal year fee schedule.

What does it mean to eliminate overdue fines from from the fee schedule? That means the library can’t assess the fine starting July 1st. Here we are about to enter July and yet the library hasn’t announced the change. So I asked City Librarian Buth about it. She replied, “More information about the changes surrounding overdue fines will be available after July 5th…”

July 5th seems like an arbitrary day to announce the policy change. But is it arbitrary? July 5th comes ten days after the library emailed that notice to delinquent borrowers. Recall that the notice threatened to send delinquent accounts to collections in ten days if the outstanding debt wasn’t paid.

It takes no genius to realize that by the time the library announces the policy change on July 5th, delinquent borrowers would already have paid up OR those delinquent accounts would have been sent to collections.

Library patrons will hear about the new ‘fine-free’ policy after they have missed the boat. To me this looks like an 11th hour cash-grab!

What is a Delinquent Borrower to Do?

The library waives fines on a case-by-case basis, according to the library’s fee policy. Contact the library and ask to have those fines waived. Pursuant to the fee policy please be prepared to offer one of the following reasons:

  • You are a hospitalized borrower and can provide the library with a doctor’s note;
  • You have been a victim of a natural disaster and can present the library with an insurance claim as proof;
  • You are a tenant holding an eviction notice and are prepared to show it to the library; or,
  • You are incarcerated or perhaps dead — either way you get a free pass on the delinquent fines.

This sounds comical in the context of library fines, right? Especially as the library acknowledges that fines are bad for business and the library will soon discontinue the fines altogether.

Nevertheless f you want to plead your way out of collections please contact City Librarian Karen Buth at (310) 288–2222 and remind her that she herself acknowledged to City Council that library fines are counterproductive; and that she herself recognizes that delinquent fines fall hardest on the worse-off among us. Then ask why the library is pursuing the collection of delinquent fines just days before the fines go away for good.

Please get in touch with Renters Alliance and let us know if she has any good answer for that question.

More Information

Beverly Hills Library Loan Periods and Fines

Beverly Hills Library Collecting Fees and Fines policy (2016)

Beverly Hills Library Reports and Policies

Beverly Hills Library Board of Trustees Annual Report FY2020–21

Schedule of Taxes and Fees FY2022–23