Don't toss out that overdue-book notice from the county library if you live in Salt Lake County - you could end up in court paying a bundle for what began as a relatively small sum.
That also goes for not taking care of bills for county-sponsored day-care service or bouncing a check for your county taxes.Unlike the much smaller Salt Lake City library system, which goes to court only a few times a year, Salt Lake County routinely seeks payment from people who have taken out library materials worth $50 or more and have not responded to repeated and protracted requests to either bring the items back or pay up.
One recently filed civil suit demands $33 from one man for unpaid day-care fees at a county facility; another wants a woman to pay $76.85 to the library system; and a third suit wants $152 from a man for "winter volleyball services."
Taking people to court for small amounts of money doesn't appear to be very cost effective on its face. But Salt Lake County Attorney Doug Short said the county last year collected about a quarter of a million dollars for unpaid library, day-care and bad-check bills using one staff attorney and two secretaries.
Short said the process is "streamlined" so that 20 to 30 cases are processed at one time and hauled to court. Since it is a government entity, the county does not have to pay a court filing fee - that becomes the responsibility of the person accused.
Attorney fees and collection fees also are added. The total costs can vary depending on the case.
The county charges $50 for an attorney to do the paperwork; there's a $37 filing fee and another charge that generally is about $15 (it's based on mileage) for someone to serve papers on the individual.
Is Short just trying to drum up work?
"We're so understaffed, we're not out looking for business," he said.
Short added that the practice of going to court on these matters predates his taking office by many years. The library system, for example, has been pursuing delinquent fees for 10 years. His office files court cases only after they've been referred by other county agencies.
"We run through a lot of cases just because there are a lot of people who don't pay their bills. I'd just as soon have them pay their bills. It's probably one of the toughest assignments in the office because you're dealing with people who are upset," Short said.
"They expect the taxpayers to pay for their mistakes. A lot of this is just a matter of personal responsibility," he said.
He also sees it as a fairness issue. "Think how upset all the people who pay their fines would be if they found out other people don't pay theirs. Everybody has to be treated equally. Day care is another good case. We're not in the free day-care business."
Eileen Longsworth, director of the Salt Lake County library system, said there really aren't very many deadbeats - perhaps a few thousand - in an enormous system of primarily responsible people.
Last year, the county libraries checked out 6.7 million items to 330,000 library-card holders.
"Easily 99 percent of them were returned on time or with the first (overdue) notice," she said. "The majority of our customers are wonderful people who return items and are very responsible."
She admits it's easy to overlook a book or two. "I have to pay fines, too. Even working in the library every day, I still forget to bring things in."
The library system doesn't send cases to Short's office unless items are worth $50 or more and are at least 150 days overdue, at which point they're considered lost.
Before that, the system sends out notices and makes computerized phone calls to remind customers to bring in late items. People can avoid these problems early on by renewing materials by phone, computer or in person.
Longsworth said the system will arrange a payment plan for anyone who has run up big costs if they've got serious financial or personal difficulties. "We can work with that person," she said.
In some circumstances, the library system waives fines.
After a case has gone to Short's office, another letter is sent to the individual before court action is begun. "The only time the county attorney files for a judgment is if a customer continues to ignore the notice. Even if a customer calls them and says, `I'll take care of it,' the county attorney doesn't file a judgment," Longsworth said.
But dead silence on a patron's part means legal action eventually gets underway.
"If the items are not returned, patrons are charged the replacement value," said Rena Beckstead, the deputy county attorney who handles these cases. "They're not charged a fine on top of that."
If library materials are returned, but are late and the patron has ignored notices, then the county does collect fines plus additional fees.
However, library fines, unpaid day-care costs and neglected recreation expenses are a tiny segment of the overall picture compared to library items that just never get returned.
"Library fines actually don't play that big a part," Beckstead said. "Mostly, the county is looking to replace library materials that haven't been returned."
Longsworth said there are plans to present the Salt Lake County Library Board with proposals to raise the dollar limit of overdue materials since it has been $50 for 10 years.
Fifty dollars today doesn't buy many books, videos, magazines or compact discs. Another idea is to switch to a private collection agency.
"We want to see what works," Longsworth said.
She said library fines don't seem to be a big deal for most people, judging from the phone calls and comment cards she gets.
"It's still a bargain," Longsworth said of the library system. "You can still check out 30 books and not pay anything if you bring them back on time. With the cost of books these days, it's the only way to go."