Many community banks are falling into line behind their big competitors and imposing automated teller machine surcharges.

A membership survey by the Independent Bankers Association of America found that half of more than 900 responding institutions were charging noncustomers to use their ATMs.

The reading, taken in July, was up from 35% in May 1996.

And the trend is continuing. Of 857 who were asked if they intended to impose the controversial fees within a year, 14% said yes.

Community banks are below average in tendency to surcharge. A broader survey of financial institutions last year by Speer & Associates, Atlanta, found 58% surcharging. By now that could be as high as 70%, said Speer senior consultant Gerard Hergenroeder.

Though some community banking factions have sworn off surcharging to set themselves apart from the bigger ATM deployers, they are not immune from the economic realities that fueled the surcharge rush over the last year and a half.

"Many members indicated that their ATMs were not profitable," said Viveca Ware, director of payment systems at the IBAA. "The surcharges are allowing them to be profitable."

Meanwhile, Congress continues to consider legislation to abolish the surcharges, which can range from 50 cents to $4 per transaction.

Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato, a New York Republican and chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, has held two hearings on the bill he sponsored. Though no vote has been taken, the proposal is causing some anxiety among community bankers, roughly two-thirds of whom oppose federal legislation, according to the study.

In fact, the industry as a whole prefers to let the market, rather than federal law, set prices.

"We feel very justified in charging noncustomers $1 for access to their money 24 hours a day," said Timothy Healy, president of First National Bank of Bar Harbor, Maine. Mr. Healy, who is lobbying Maine's congressional delegation against the D'Amato proposal, said he has heard no complaints from noncustomers, many of whom are tourists.

"They just show up outside the bank and say, 'Where can I find the nearest ATM?'" the banker said.

John C. Warren, president of Washington Trust Co., Westerly, R.I., said his bank imposes no surcharges at any of its 10 machine locations. Washington Trust operates the only cash machine on Block Island, a summer resort off the Rhode Island coast.

But with the bank "breaking even, at best" on its cash machines, Mr. Warren said, surcharges are under consideration.

"Even though Block Island is busy only three months of the year, the business in those three months would easily cover the cost" of operating the machine for the year, Mr. Warren said. A decision to assess fees could be made within the next two months.

Still firmly against the fees, Randy Schaffer, executive vice president at Goleta (Calif.) National Bank, said that though its ATMs are not clearly profitable, surcharges could alienate potential customers.

"This has been a very conscious decision," said Mr. Schaffer. "We're always looking for new customers, and we believe charging fees would be a disservice to the noncustomers."

James Eggimann, president of the Bank of Salem, Ore., does not have a cash machine and is not encouraged by fee potential to install one-at least for the current generation of customers.

"The average age of our customers is 65," he said. "An ATM is not a service those customers desire."

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