R.I. bank crisis leaves thousands of depositors, businesses struggling

January 04, 1991|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,Sun Staff Correspondent

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Next to the cash register of every supermarket, liquor store and dry cleaners in Rhode Island is a list of the 45 financial institutions shuttered on New Year's day.

Checks and credit cards backed by these institutions have ceased to be legal tender.

One of every three people in the state and $1 of every $10 in deposits have been affected by the crisis, making it the topic of conversation at every diner and concern in almost every home. Bills remain due, but money, for many, has disappeared.

At Louie's Family Restaurant, a customer concerned about rumored problems said that he split his $3,000 savings among three different credit unions. All are now closed.

The restaurant's proprietor, Louis Gianfrancesco, shrugged. "I had always wanted to [put money in a credit union]. They pay more interest. But I just never did."

Across town, Fernando Medeiros, 34, an unemployed construction worker who stopped by the closed East Providence Credit Union yesterday, said, "I have a mortgage. I need the money. I can't refuse to pay. This is crazy."

Joining Mr. Medeiros was Edward Figueiredo, a recent immigrant from Portugal who spoke little English. Told the credit union's status in Portuguese by Mr. Medeiros, Mr. Figueiredo could say only, "Oh my God, oh my God" before driving away.

East Providence Credit Union is one of the largest closed institutions with $103 million in deposits. It is also one of the most troubled. As of yesterday, East Providence and 10 other credit unions were rejected for federal insurance, making an imminent reopening unlikely.

Referring to past bank crises in Maryland and Ohio, Gov. Bruce G. Sundlun said yesterday that it took four years in some cases before all reimbursements were made and that "the magnitude" of the problem "is substantially larger in Rhode Island."

Twenty-two of the closed institutions are scheduled to reopen next week, and Rhode Island officials are said to be working with regulators from the federal government and from Maryland to devise new banking regulations. In the meantime, however, finances in the state are threatened with gridlock.

Many local businesses are caught in a cross-fire, troubled by potentially bad checks from longtime customers and stuck with frozen accounts of their own.

At East Providence Fuel Oil Co., almost one-fifth of the payments usually are made with checks from the East Providence Credit Union, which is next door.

"We will do as much as we can for our customers. As of now, we will take care of them; none will be cold," said Victor Allienello Jr. "I don't see a squeeze happening, but see me in two weeks. There could be some serious fallout. Our wholesalers want money up-front. Then again, it may all blow over."

Mr. Allienello made the company's usual deposit Wednesday at Fleet Bank, a large, healthy regional bank. The teller went through all the checks and "graciously put in an envelope and returned" every one issued from a closed institution -- 20 percent to 30 percent of the total. Mr. Allienello is holding them all and will try to redeposit them next week.

He understands what his customers are going through. His own personal account and his mortgage are at the East Providence Credit Union.

Some people have responded by cutting off extraneous expenditures. At Hillhouse Limited, a Providence men's store, Herb Singer called a customer to tell him to pick up a specially JTC ordered tie decorated with financial symbols. The man said that "he'll be in as soon as he can use his credit card," Mr. Singer said.

Several large banks began emergency services yesterday, including low-interest loans. For many families, however, that isn't enough to replace extensive relationships built up with the troubled institutions.

Suzanne Glover's mother was a secretary at a Rhode Island naval base, and, like many there, set up accounts for herself and her family at the Davisville Credit Union, the third-largest in the state.

"Even if I had seen this happening, I don't think I would have moved my accounts," Ms. Glover said. "But if this goes under I'll feel betrayed."

She canceled a doctor's appointment for today because, with her accounts frozen, she didn't have the $10 fee.

"I guess we didn't realize it, but we were being very adventurous with our money," she said.

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