Houston libraries owed more than $11 million

May 20, 2011 4:13:07 PM PDT
Mayor Annise Parker was forced to cut $75 million this year. But she's also demanding city departments track down some of the $921 million the city is owed, so we've been shaking the city's couch cushions to find out where the missing money is hiding.

Houston libraries were cut $3.3 million in next year's budget. It's so much money they had to lay off 20 percent of their neighborhood library staff.

But when we shook the library's couch cushions we found more than $11 million in unpaid fines. If they had even a third of it, it would pay for all those cuts.

Trekking our well-worn couch across Houston's Downtown Library Plaza surprisingly didn't attract all that much attention. And not a single offer for help.

But maybe that fits since the library isn't getting much help collecting the change under Houstonians' couch cushions to pay a huge build up of unpaid library fines.

"Upward of $100,000," Houstonian Jesse York said. "Maybe around a million?"

But hiding under the library's cushions are $11.2 million in unpaid fines and fees.

"That's ridiculous," York said.

What's worse is most of the big bills are for stuff that was never returned and now can't be replaced.

"You can't replace books that leave out because it's money, and money is in short supply now," said Roosevelt Weeks with Houston Public Library.

The city says it's getting tough with people who owe the city money, but just how tough can a library get?

Sure, they cut off borrowing privileges once your bill gets to $25, but for the worst offenders it likely didn't matter. Most of the top 10 library delinquents walked with dozens of books or movies in just a few days before the library could cut them off.

When we went looking for people who owe thousands to the library, two guys who owe $2,200 apiece listed their addresses as drug treatment centers for the homeless.

We checked and they're not there anymore. We do know they've been at the Harris County Jail since they racked up the fines.

"We don't go into background checks of our customers," Weeks said.

In fact, five of the worst library delinquents have jail records -- only one for a library-related charge, who allegedly took a laptop and never returned it.

Another of the top 10 is dead.

The bottom line is none of them are likely to pay up, despite orders from Mayor Parker to get tough and get the cash.

"In a year, I couldn't say what success looks like," Weeks said.

The library's chief money man Weeks says he wants all $11.2 million and is confident the collection agency working for you can get it, but he hasn't set an interim goal for them.

As it sets out on the new debt collection project, the city admits it's been plagued by a lax attitude towards debt collection across most departments and an unwieldy system that has seven private companies working to collect the debt for different agencies citywide.

At the library where even more service cuts are on the way next year, patrons hope the get-tough attitude, gets some of that cash hidden under Houston library patrons' couches.

"Eleven-million, that's what I hope they would find," York said.

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