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In San Francisco, a ballot-box backlash to ATM fees

Residents vote next week on banning double fees, as banks fret that the move may trigger a broad revolt

When Republicans offered a tax cut earlier this year and Americans shrugged, it may have seemed the politics of the pocketbook were dead.

Yet like many political movements that have begun far from Washington, a rebellion against extra ATM charges has erupted here and has enough echoes elsewhere that some in the banking business are getting nervous.

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San Franciscans next week will be the first in the nation to vote on banning certain fees customers pay when they use an ATM not owned by their own bank.

Though the banking industry calls the proposal unfair and illegal, and is confident of ultimate victory in the courts, it's not at all sanguine about the ripple effect a victory here could produce.

"We figure the lure of a free lunch will be very strong" for other cities around the country if the San Francisco measure prevails, says John Stafford of the California Bankers Association. "But we want to remind everyone that this really is too good to be true."

Part of the opposition strategy has been to isolate the ballot proposal as another wacko maneuver by the regulation-loving, corporate-demonizing leftists of San Francisco.

Then the Pentagon announced recently that it too felt bank ATM fees were unfair and was considering a rule to prohibit such charges on US military bases. That, banking officials concede, could add credibility to the anti-ATM fee movement.

Another California city, Santa Monica, recently passed an ordinance outlawing the extra ATM fees and other cities are considering similar measures. However, the banking industry has successfully challenged in the courts moves in Iowa and Connecticut at the state level to outlaw fees.

But San Francisco is the first to let the people decide, a move that could easily promote copycat measures around the country, critics and supporters agree.

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The backdrop to all this are corporations in search of profit and consumers annoyed at charges they never used to incur when turning their deposits into ready cash. But as banking has been squeezed by competition, a whole list of formerly free services have vanished. Even a phone call to an account holder's bank can incur a fee nowadays.

The banking industry says unbundling services and assessing each customer for what they use is a fairer model for consumers. Also, banking officials note that most ATMs come free of charge so long as customers use their own bank's machines.

Indeed, when ATMs first hit the streets, no charges were assessed. Then, when it "was obvious there wasn't enough revenue to expand the system and deploy more ATMs," says Mr. Stafford, banks began charging fees when customers used other banks' ATMs.

The development triggering opposition was a second layer of fees begun in 1996 at most US banks. These surcharges usually range from $1 to $2 dollars and are shared by both banks (the owner of the ATM and the user's own bank).

Fairness as much as economics is driving the campaign to block the fees here. "It's a double charge," says an outraged Jon Golinger of the campaign to pass the San Francisco ballot measure, which will be voted on Nov. 2.

"We think people are willing to pay a little more to access their money. But this additional surcharge is not something people accept as fair," he adds.

According to the Public Interest Research Group, a consumer advocacy group, nine out of 10 banks in the country now levy this ATM surcharge. "Banks charge this double-dipping surcharge for one reason: because they can," says the PIRG's Ed Mierzwinski.

So far, more than 20 state legislatures and the US Congress have considered but failed to legislatively prohibit the surcharges. And any attempt by local or state governments to regulate national banks is destined to be thwarted by the courts, Stafford says.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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