Last year Jonathan Cope, 40, received an alarming letter from a debt collection company called Unique Management Services. It wasn’t for an unpaid student loan or a late car payment, but something he didn’t expect: unreturned documents he borrowed from the Brooklyn Public Library last year.
Apparently, no one is safe from forgetting to bring items back to the library. Cope, who owed about $ 30, works as a librarian for the City University of New York.
“We go to work every day, we always check the books and other documents,” he said. “We often neglect to get things done on time.”
Each year, approximately 50,000 delinquent New York City library users are reported to Unique Management Services, a debt collection agency that works with the city’s three public library systems: the New York Public Library, the Queens Public Library and the Brooklyn Public Library. People remitted to Unique typically have fines in excess of $ 25 or $ 50, depending on their library.
Unique’s job is to pressure customers to return late books or pay fines with a series of appeals and letters, a method they have known as “Gentle Nudge.” .
After the series of nudges, the client either flips the material or does not. “We don’t do anything after that,” said Kenes Bowling, the company’s customer development manager. Court records confirmed that Unique was not making matters worse by pursuing the unpaid fine, unlike many other debt collection agencies. Following a 2015 settlement with the New York Attorney General, library debts no longer affect a person’s credit rating.
Nonetheless, some people have become increasingly critical of libraries’ use of a debt collector.
“It is a practice that we should end and which is certainly incompatible with the amazing values of public libraries,” said Jimmy Van Bramer, a member of the Queens Council who chairs the committee that oversees libraries. “Receiving a letter from a collection agency is obviously scary. It’s terrifying for some people. It makes you think that you have a lot of problems.
Many public library systems in the United States are moving away from a punitive fine structure. Chicago recently became the largest public library system to eliminate late fees. In 2012, the Washington DC Public Library System removed daily fines and instead introduced a flat fee of $ 5 for overdue books 30 days or more, which is between $ 8 and $ 20. depending on the value of the overdue book. No one can accumulate more than $ 40 in fines, and the library says they have never worked with a debt collector.
“We want to remove barriers to using the library. Fines and fees are significant hurdles, ”said Richard Reyes-Gavilan, executive director of the DC Library. “A library that sends a debt collector after a customer creates a barrier, even if it doesn’t impact the credit rating. How does this client know that the debt will not be reported? What does it give the customer to use their library? “
Dennis Walcott, chief executive officer of the Queens Public Library and former chancellor of New York City schools, said he wanted to end the practice within a year.
Since the 1990s, the Queens Public Library has reported 603,298 card holders to Unique, most of the three public libraries. Among these cases, the agency is actively seeking to impose fines on 58,132 clients. The library sent the company a list of 16,128 new accounts last year, according to statistics obtained by Gothamist / WNYC via an Freedom of Information request. The library currently has 940,000 active cardholders.
Walcott said that while using a debt collector isn’t ideal, it does serve a purpose.
“Sometimes there are very unique books that get pulled out that cost the system a lot of money,” Walcott said. “It’s important to get these books back into the system. “
The New York Public Library has about 270,000 delinquent accounts, a number that also dates back to the 1990s, according to library spokesperson Angela Montefinise. (NYPL is not subject to Freedom of Information requests like the other two libraries are.) NYPL referred 13,789 accounts to Unique in 2018, according to Montefinise.
“We share the same concerns as many of them regarding this problem in general, and we are working to resolve it,” she said. “Libraries are proactively assessing the issue of fines because we know they can be a barrier to access for many New Yorkers. It’s a complicated problem, and finding a lasting solution takes time.
The Brooklyn Public Library began working with Unique in 2011. Of its 171,464 overdue accounts, the library sent over 17,831 overdue accounts to Unique in the past year.
Brooklyn Public Library spokesperson Fritzi Bodenheimer said about 1.5% of cardholders are referred to collections within a year.
“This is a last resort and only for cardholders who are fined $ 25 and have not made any payment for the fine within a 60-day period,” Bodenheimer said.
For the most part, Unique’s service has paid off. The New York Public Library estimates that the company has collected $ 6 million and $ 8 million in items since the 1990s. The Queens Public Library paid Unique $ 126,929 and collected $ 651,059 over a period of one. year ending September 2019. Most of these monies were actual returned library books, valued at $ 411,831. The Brooklyn Public Library collected more money than books, over a one-year period from November 2017 to October 2018. It paid Unique $ 204,234 and collected $ 834,316, including 58 % cash.
A portion of Unique’s fees are paid by library users. When a user’s account is transferred to the collection, the individual must pay an administrative fee of $ 6 or $ 10 which covers the cost that the library pays to Unique.
“Libraries needed a way to retrieve the materials,” Bowling explained. “But the relationship between a library and its customers is precious. It’s really about contacting clients and building relationships with clients in a way that helps them understand the importance of getting their books back.
Cope, however, didn’t seem to find the “Gentle Nudge” so sweet.
“So many people are just trying to get by every month,” he said. “The idea that they just got hit by the library with another bill, from a collection agency, no less. I just felt that sent the wrong message.”
UPDATE: The original story did not indicate that Dennis Walcott, President and CEO of the Queens Public Library, said he wanted to end the practice of using a debt collector for unpaid fines within one year. He is not in favor of the policy, although he has recognized its usefulness.