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02.10.10

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MOVING MOUNTAINS: Furious with 'too big to fail' financial institutions, more and more customers are moving their cash to small, community banks.

County Thinks Local

Keeley bets on banks to do right

By Jessica Lussenhop


EVERYONE loves to hate the big banks these days. So much so that a national movement called Move Your Money, which encourages individuals to take their money out of our nation's biggest banks and place it with community banks and credit unions, has enjoyed a groundswell of support since it came out a month ago. Even local banks have noticed. "We've seen the number of accounts [go up] as a result of Move Your Money," says Mary Anne Carson, marketing director for Santa Cruz County Bank. "It is really making a difference for us."

Armed with the old It's A Wonderful Life parable on local banking, MYM has caught the attention of state government officials in New Mexico and Oregon. Clearly, though, something's in the air; Santa Cruz County Treasurer Fred Keeley says he hadn't even heard of it when he presented a new idea to the county's Treasury Oversight Commission earlier this month.

The concept is simple: invest sizeable chunks of county money in local bank branches. The county's liquid assets, which on any given day total between $600 and $800 million, are made up of the year's allotment of money for school, fire and water districts. Take a portion of that money out of the Treasury bills where it normally resides and put it into local banks, Keeley explains, and you have the makings of a familiar program.

"This is one treasurer in a small county trying to create a bit of a stimulus program by providing more capital to the local banking community," Keeley says, "and encouraging them to push that money out the door to creditworthy borrowers."

In the next couple of weeks, Keeley says he and his staff will be calling every local bank branch that has Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation protection to discuss investing up to $240,000 in each. If the figure sounds arbitrary, it's not. In response to the economic crisis, Congress allowed the FDIC's coverage to widen from $100,000 to $250,000 through 2013; Keeley saw it as a risk-free opportunity.

"One of the things people keep saying to me, especially small business folks, is it's very hard to access credit," he says. "I thought, well, if the federal government has expanded the government umbrella where there is literally no risk, I'm willing to make investments up to $240,000 in every banking institution that does business in Santa Cruz County."

Although Keeley says he can't secure any kind of explicit agreement with those banks to lend locally with the new injection of capital, which he estimates conservatively will be $5 million over the next several months, he will emphasize that hope in each meeting.

"I'm doing a little nudging," he says. "I'm bringing a bell to all these meetings. 'Look, another angel just got his wings!'"

Treasury Oversight Commission alternate Supervisor John Leopold says that although the plan is currently focused on FDIC-insured banks, an item on the supervisor's agenda in two weeks will approve a change to county investment policy that will allow Keeley to also invest in local credit unions, which tend to make more small loans locally. "Any time you can get our money to work for the people who work here, that's good public policy," he says. "You wonder why it wasn't done earlier."

CEO and president of Lighthouse Bank Richard Hofstetter says he has talked to cities, the county and UCSC about investing locally long before the Move Your Money movement. "Seventy percent of the market in Santa Cruz is with Bank of America, Chase, Wells Fargo and Comerica. We think we're a Think Local First community and we're really not," he says. "One of the strange aspects of community banking is the support has to be mutual."

While Hofstetter is supportive of Keeley's plan, he does point out that $240,000 in new capital will only translate to about $200,000 in additional loans. "Which is better than zero," he adds quickly. "Now, if it gets traction, then it's different. If the university did it, and the city of Scotts Valley did it, and the county did it, if all the jurisdictions within Santa Cruz County did it, then all those little drops would help fill a bucket. It's certainly a good first step."

Read a longer version of this article at www.santacruz.com/news.


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