Library short HK$21m in unpaid fines

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 06 July, 2009, 12:00am

More than HK$21 million is outstanding in accumulated library fines, but the Leisure and Cultural Services Department does not plan any new penalties to crack down on errant borrowers.

The amount snowballs each year, with the HK$21.4 million outstanding in May this year topping the 2006 tally by more than HK$3 million, despite recovery of HK$4.5 million since then. The problem has come under the scrutiny of the Audit Commission, and some measures have been taken to improve the collection rate.

But the department said nothing more was planned at this stage, although one in 10 borrowers returned books late last year.

'We consider the current practice effective as the majority of readers are considerate and co-operative, and they return their borrowed library materials on time or upon their receipt of the reminders or notices,' a spokesman said.

However, legislators say more should be done. Democrat Cheung Man-kwong said a person who had yet to return an overdue book or settle a fine should be barred from borrowing another. 'Even if he didn't return the book eventually, the loss would be limited to one book.'

Under current regulations, a notice regarding the overdue item is sent 15 days after the borrowed book is due and borrowing rights are suspended 59 days after the due date.

But Mr Cheung said it would be reasonable to suspend borrowing rights as soon as an overdue notice was delivered. 'You wouldn't know how many extra books he would borrow during that 59 days.'

Democrat Fred Li Wah-ming went further, saying people who had not settled fines should be treated like tax defaulters and barred from leaving the territory. 'The Leisure and Cultural Services Department does not allocate enough resources to go after the fines,' he said. 'They should not delay doing so any more. It's public money after all.'

Of the 733,000 readers who returned books late last year, 41,000 have still not paid their fines. A 2007 Audit Commission report revealed that in 2006, accumulated unpaid fines amounted to HK$17.6 million.

In the past two years, borrowers have been charged HK$39.7 million in fines for overdue items, with HK$3.5 million yet to be paid.

Despite a surge in the use of legal proceedings to pursue outstanding fines, the amount recovered in the courts remains a small proportion of the total. There were 653 cases last year, up from 41 in 2007, and the total amount recovered increased from HK$23,634 to HK$262,278. On average, only a little more than HK$400 is recovered in each case.

The Audit Commission said it had been monitoring the effectiveness of measures taken by the department to improve its management system. One such measure is shortening the time before the issuing of payment notices and expediting recovery action, including legal action on outstanding fines and charges.

The monitoring process is continuing as part of the commission's regular reviews of the government's revenue arrears, according to the commission. All audit reports, however, are confidential before tabling in the Legislative Council.