If all library fines owed to the Merced County Library were paid, head librarian Jacqueline Merriam probably wouldn't be working on plans for drastic cuts to the organization’s budget.
Merced County library patrons owe $135,511 in fines and fees for overdue books and materials borrowed from the library’s 15 branches over the last decade.
Some of the debt, like the $200 owed by Melonie Elvina Mitchell since 2008, can be sent to collections.
The problem is, it's not cost-efficient for the county's collections department to go after the smaller amounts that make up a bulk of the fines.
"A lot of it, if you look, is 10 cents here, 50 cents there," Merriam said. But with 18,300 records between 2003 and 2010, every cent adds up.
The library, like all departments in the county, is being asked to trim 20 percent from its 2011-12 budget. Combined with a drastic reduction in state funding, Merced’s library system faces a loss of $384,000, Merriam said. The cuts could include branch closures and layoffs, but the final decision rests with the Merced County Board of Supervisors.
Merriam said any outstanding fines more than $100 are sent to the county’s Revenue and Reimbursements Department, but for the smaller amounts, the library has to rely on its patrons to do the right thing.
"We try to be careful; we review accounts," she said. "So many people are struggling right now. Because of the economy we're sending letters to people. We'll talk to them about making payments." She said a lot of people don’t realize when their children check out books and fail to return them, only finding out about it when they get a collection notice.
The county has 2,620 cases of outstanding library fines, totaling $186,817, sent to collections. State law prevents the county from going after debt older than four years old, so in reality there's just $75,553 -- 664 cases -- in outstanding collectible fines, according to Shari Sumpter, assistant treasurer and tax collector for Merced County.
"We’ll zero in on the larger ones before they reach the statute of limitations," she said, adding the county will still happily accept payment on older fines.
Online editor Brandon Bowers can be reached at (209) 385-2464 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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