HOUSTON -- Public libraries live and die by the honor system, but some residents in Brazoria County aren t living up to their end of the bargain.

Twelve-and-a-half percent of the materials currently checked out are overdue. The amount of late fees due is even more staggering.

The wonderful thing about any public library, whether you re penniless or wealthy, young or old, is that there s a world of knowledge at your disposal just waiting to be explored.

It s the great equalizer, said Sara Joiner, the children s coordinator for the library system. There is something for everyone, and for everyone there is a place here.

Lillie Skinner, a frequent visitor to the Angleton branch, agreed.

It s free. It s open to the public, she said. No one has an excuse not to get knowledge.

It s free to the public, but not to the county, which recently had to waive a quarter of a million dollars in fees owed to the library because they were more than seven years past due.

Debt is erased after seven years, so that is what we had to write off, said Joiner. We are still owed just under a million dollars even with that write off.

The library works with a debt-collection agency, but beyond that, its hands are legally tied. The library system is run by Brazoria County, and state laws prevent counties from criminalizing the stealing of library materials. Strangely, the same law doesn t apply to city governments.

We can t send the sheriff s department door to door demanding our money or our books, said Joiner. So we re stuck just kind of sending letters and politely requesting that people return the materials.

Unreturned materials fall into a category known as lost and overdue. It s a polite way of saying what, in many cases, amounts to nothing short of theft.

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