Fort Worth residents with a library fine on the books before 2014 are getting a reprieve.
The library has records dating back nearly 30 years of unpaid fines and fees totaling $14.3 million, but it now considers that data so old it is writing $11.5 million of that debt off its books.
It's not that the city hasn't tried to collect the money. When it has, patrons' addresses and phone numbers don't match up, or letters come back as undeliverable or the person is in bankruptcy.
“Much of this money is no longer connected to a person or to a piece of material," said Manya Shorr, Fort Worth's library director since June. "Even if someone were to return a book, we wouldn’t even know they had returned it. It’s not real money, it’s just bad data, 28 years of bad data.”
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Fort Worth departments over the past few years have been transitioning to new billing software systems and now it's the library's turn. In order to do so, it means closing the books on the fines it can no longer collect.
Part of the problem has been that the library fines have never been accounted for on the city's ledgers. Going forward, the city will collect on fines accrued since 2014. There was $2.8 million in those fines on the books as of Sept. 30, 2017.
Moreover, data was lost in two software upgrades in recent years, according to a recent report to the City Council. That means if an item is returned, it can't be cleared, the report said.
"My understanding is that every time we have transitioned to a new library catalog, that is when we brought over this bad data," Shorr said. "That's been the biggest issue for me. The city has not been able to track this. If the city had been able to, we wouldn’t have found ourselves in this situation now."
Fort Worth uses Unique Management, a collection firm that works exclusively with libraries worldwide to recover losses. The company says that, after three years, chances of collecting that debt diminish greatly, Shorr said.
The Fort Worth library blocks patrons from using the library when they owe $5 or more, Shorr said.
Patrons are charged 25 cents a day for overdue books and $1 a day for late DVDs. In order to keep its database current, the library asks patrons to renew their cards each year.
"Our fine and fee program has not received a similar level of oversight," the report said.