BankBoston Corp. is throwing its weight into the battle for automated teller machine surcharging rights-and setting off political sparks in its home state of Massachusetts.
BankBoston has joined Fleet Financial Group, also Boston-based, in the pro-surcharge camp. They are at odds with a strongly liberal, pro-consumer climate that has made Massachusetts one of the rare places where virtually all ATM access remains free even to people without accounts at the ATM- owning bank.
The big banking companies are likely to be of one voice in the fall when the state Legislature is expected to take up proposals to prohibit surcharges on noncustomers.
These fees, often $1 to $2, have spread like wildfire since MasterCard's Cirrus network and Visa's Plus system lifted their internal surcharge bans last year. They have also prompted elected officials, most vocally U.S. Senate Banking Committee Chairman Alfonse D'Amato, to threaten to outlaw surcharges.
Forty legislators are sponsoring an anti-surcharge bill in Massachusetts.
Meanwhile, community bankers in Massachusetts and elsewhere have banded together in no-surcharge pledges. They fear that their customers, when they have to pay surcharges to the big ATM owners, will shift accounts to those banks to avoid the fees.
BankBoston and Fleet own two-thirds of the machines in Massachusetts, where only banks in the resort area of Martha's Vineyard are believed to be surcharging.
BankBoston, neutral on this issue while completing the integration of merger partner BayBanks Inc., now seems poised to impose surcharges. Its new strategic posture was reported Thursday in the Boston Globe.
"We do think the ability to surcharge is absolutely the right thing," said Thomas J. Hollister, executive vice president and director of BankBoston's consumer and small-business banking. "We do intend to enter the legislative debate."
"Banks have been respectful of legislative concerns as to the pros and cons of surcharging," said Dan Forte, president of the Massachusetts Bankers Association, which has assembled an alliance of 215 banks and 800 ATMs that don't surcharge.
Mr. Hollister said that BankBoston had decided to let its views be known in part because noncustomer use is up to 25% of the 12 million transactions a month at its machines. Surcharges, or what the bank likes to call "noncustomer convenience fees," would help defray what Mr. Hollister said is a processing cost of 50 cents to $1.
"We shouldn't make apologies for being a profit-making company," Mr. Hollister said. He said a "substantial amount of the proceeds" would go toward reducing customer fees and other basic banking charges.
He said BankBoston intends to "work cooperatively with the legislature" as the issue comes up for debate this fall.
Competitors have long anticipated that BankBoston and Fleet would eventually want to surcharge; Fleet already does in other northeastern states.
"This action is the reason we began to look at this issue over a year ago and had developed an alliance of more than 100 banks to protect the interest of the small communities and their customers from the impact of a decision of this kind," said Gene B. Graham, executive vice president of the Community Bank League of New England, another no-surcharge alliance organizer.
BankBoston and Fleet are "drawing a line in the sand by putting legislators on notice that this is a big deal," said Deirdre Cummings, consumer program director of the Massachusetts Public Interest Group.
Ms. Cummings said surcharging is "exploitative" and "the equivalent of price gouging."
"We think the best way to cure gouging is by full disclosure so that the consumer can see it," Mr. Hollister said.