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April 17, 2008 Issue

Library fines may land some in jail
Matthews fire engine not working properly
A scary possibility...

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Library fines may land some in jail

By Carol McLeod
Staff Writer

It may be easy to forget that library book in the backseat of your car or that DVD in your living room and, after all, fines for overdue books are 10 cents and 50 cents for DVDs.

However, for 38 people in Jefferson County those fines may land them before the county’s magistrate.

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On Monday, April 14, a representative of the Jefferson County library signed warrants in cases against library patrons who have overdue library materials.

According to Anita Thompson, one of the county’s magistrates, those warrants were scheduled to start being served on Wednesday, April 16.

“They’re all misdemeanors,” said Chief Magistrate Murray Bowman. Bowman said there is a section in the Georgia code setting failure of a library patron to return materials as a crime.

“We don’t collect the library fines, we just collect the price of the item,” he said.

Patricia Edwards, the director of the county’s libraries, said this is not an attempt to punish or embarrass patrons of the library.

“We just want our materials,” she said. “As a public institution, we are supposed to be responsible.”

The Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts holds each library system in Georgia accountable for all of the books, DVDs and other materials bought with taxpayer money, Edwards said.

“We have to make a good faith effort to recover outstanding library materials,” she said. “As part of the PINES (network), which is statewide, when library materials become overdue, notification is sent to the patron.”

A letter, automatically generated at the state level, is sent to patrons with overdue materials when those materials are seven days overdue, again at 14 days and again at 30 days, according to Edwards.

She said the letter sent at the 30-day mark quotes the law, which allows for a fine of no more than $500 or imprisonment for no longer than 30 days.

“This stuff costs the taxpayers and all of it together cost a good amount of money,” Bowman said.

According to Edwards, the amount at the magistrate court totals about $1,250 in materials.

“These same people have $550 in fines,” she said. “The average book fine for those people is approximately $50.”

The least owed is $16 and the most is $231, according to Edwards.

Edwards said they run a report of overdue accounts on a monthly basis. An account is at least 45 days overdue before any action is taken, she said.

“First, we double check the shelves to make sure it’s not here. We find very few that far out,” she said.

At that point, a staff member makes an attempt to contact the patron by telephone. If contact is made and the materials have not been returned within 14 days, then a letter is sent. The letter gives the patron 10 days to return the materials and explains that, if the materials are not returned within that time limit, the account is sent to magistrate court.

“I want to emphasize this,” Edwards said. “They have had at least four letters and one phone call attempt asking them to return the materials.”

She noted when people change their phone numbers, addresses and email, they should correct that information with the library so they can be contacted.

“When we go to magistrate’s court, we’re asking for the materials to be returned. We’re not taking anybody over there for fees,” Edwards said. “I don’t want anyone to assume that just because they’ve returned their materials, that’s it. They still owe us money. We are trying to be responsible for our materials.”

Although the library has set hours, there is a drop box available 24 hours every day.

Edwards said working on these past due accounts is extremely time consuming.

“Other libraries have gone to using collection agencies,” she said, adding this can affect a patron’s credit standing.

“It’s not unique to us,” she said. “It’s happening all over the state. It’s happening all over the country.”

She added that, in the case of a minor, the parent or guardian who signed the application for a library card is the responsible party and will be liable for materials not returned by the minor.

This is the second or third time the system has used the magistrate court option as a means to have their materials returned, according to Edwards.

“This is a different issue,” she said. “Fees and fines already assessed to people’s records and not paid are separate from the unreturned materials for which we’re going to the magistrate court.”

Those fees are in excess of $12,000, she said, a figure that is half the county’s annual purchasing budget for the three libraries.

“If we can’t get it rectified here, I’ll have to send it to state court,” Bowman said. “We’ve had to do this before. Chances are if they’ll come out here and see me, we can get something worked out. Otherwise I’m going to have to send them on through the system.”



Matthews fire engine not working properly

By Carol McLeod
Staff Writer

Jefferson County Commissioner Johnny Davis does not usually lose his temper during commission meetings; but on the board’s most recent monthly meeting held Tuesday, April 8, Davis came close.

The problem is the latest fire truck bought for the fire department in Matthews. Purchased with SPLOST funds, it cost $200,000 and is not working.

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“We have had numerous problems,” Davis told the commissioners. “It has been in the local shop several times. It has gone to Winder for repairs. It shuts down or starts working. This is an emergency piece of equipment.

“It’s gone on long enough and we need to take some sort of legal action.”

Paul Bryan, the county’s administrator, said a fireman told him the truck kept slipping out of gear.

Barrow Walden, Matthews’ fire chief, said the vehicle had about 300 miles on it when he picked it up in Winder.

“Other departments have had these same exact problems,” Walden said. Avera and Wrens have had problems with their trucks, he said, although not to the same extent.

“We get the RPMs up to second gear, it goes into reverse,” he said. Walden said the truck has been returned by the various repair shops it’s been sent without problems being found.

“I have no doubt they couldn’t find any problems,” he said, adding the truck is fine for weeks at a time.

“Why don’t we just call them up and tell them we want a new truck?” asked Commissioner Tommy New.

“The sales rep refuses to return my call,” Walden said.

The current mileage on the odometer is about 3,200 miles, according to Walden.

“Most of the miles can actually be documented as for repairs,” Bryan said.

It was decided at the meeting that Walden would bring all his documentation regarding the number of breakdowns and repairs the truck has had to the county attorney, Mickey Moses, to see what action could be taken.

A fireman in attendance stood and said an example of the kind of problem firefighters using the truck could face is for them to be in a burning structure and have the pumps quit. The firefighters would be trapped, he said.

“What I’m saying is that I want either them to repair this truck fully or get us another truck to replace the one that we’ve got,” Davis said in a later interview. “This is a $200,000 piece of equipment. People’s lives depend on this. I would hate to know that truck was on its way to an emergency and it shut down.”

According to Walden, just such an event has already occurred and more than once.

“Replace it, repair it or we have to pay the difference to get a new one,” Davis said.

Davis pointed out the truck, bought with SPLOST money, is something all taxpayers in the county helped purchase, along with the other fire equipment for other departments.

“This is everybody’s problem,” he said. “Not just people in district 2. Everybody’s money is in this truck. Total for all fire systems in the county, we have spent $1.6 million. We need something done as soon as possible. People’s property and their lives depend on these trucks. They have to work and we have to be able to rely on them. Because we do. We rely on them to work. It’s that important.”



A scary possibility...

In an effort to get area teenagers' attention and illustrate the very real consequences of poor decision making, Jefferson County law enforcement and emergency responders put together a mock accident at Jefferson County High School Tuesday afternoon. With the school's prom this weekend, officials used actual JCHS students to dramatize an accident scene on the school grounds. Firefighters removed Kayce' White and Will Peebles from the wrecked vehicle and placed them in body bags before their friends' eyes. Kourtney Riddle was placed on a stretcher and carried away. The program focused on the consequences of drinking and driving.

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