WASHINGTON - Commercial banks will pay 23% of the $6.1 billion cost of rebuilding the thrift industry's insurance fund if the government's plan is adopted by Congress.

Why? Because 771 banks own $159 billion in thrift deposits.

The government's rescue plan is centered on a one-time fee that will be levied against all thrifts deposits, or those deposits insured by the Savings Association Insurance Fund as of March 31.

If Congress adopts the plan, $6.1 billion in payments would be collected on Jan. 1.

The fee would land somewhere between 85 basis points and 90 basis points. Assuming an 85-cent fee, the banking industry's thrift deposits would cost $1.35 billion.

In fact, the 10 banks facing the largest tabs would pay $495 million on $62 billion of thrift deposits.

Hardest hit would be San Francisco-based BankAmerica Corp. and First Union Corp., Charlotte, N.C. Each bank faces an invoice of nearly $100 million on about $12 billion in thrift deposits, according to calculations by Veribanc, Wakefield, Mass.

Third on the list is Banc One Corp., Columbus, Ohio, which would owe $50 million on its $6.3 billion in thrift deposits, Veribanc concluded.

An amendment to the 1989 Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act by former Rep. Mary Rose Oakar, D-Ohio, allowed banks to buy thrift deposits. But banks were required to continue paying premiums on the acquired deposits to the thrift insurance fund.

In 1991, Congress adjusted the Oakar amendment to require banks to assume that their acquired thrift deposits were growing at the same rate as total deposits.

But the so-called Oakar banks, or simply Oakars, argue today that the government is overestimating the amount of thrift deposits banks hold.

Larry Gotlieb, manager of federal government affairs for First Interstate Bancorp, said much of the thrift deposits his bank bought have run off.

The Los Angeles-based banking company reports $4.15 billion in thrift deposits, which would cost it $33.2 million under the government's proposal.

"Our actual deposit base is smaller than what the SAIF assumes," Mr. Gotlieb said. "Thirty percent is a minimum defensible" figure for the amount of erosion.

James D. Barr, executive vice president and treasurer at Crestar Financial Corp., agreed.

"The assessment is too high," he said. "It represents deposits that are no longer in the bank."

Some of the Oakars have hired a Washington lawyer to help them develop their arguments against the proposal, but it is not clear how hard the banks are willing to press the issue in Congress.

A number of banks with large holdings of thrift deposits refused to comment on the topic, including Barnett Banks Inc., Jacksonville, Fla., and First Union.

"We don't really have anything to say," said Barnett spokesman Robert Stickler. "We're just watching what's going on."

But the lawyer representing some of the Oakars, Carol Van Cleef, said banks that bought thrifts should not have to pay such hefty bills. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, banks helped the government by taking insolvent thrifts off its hands, she argued.

"No one said this would happen if banks helped out," said Ms. Van Cleef, a partner with Katten Muchin & Zavis law firm here.

"The deposit bases that are reported for assessment purposes are grossly distorted," she added. The banks are "being asked to bear a burden that is not theirs to bear."

Crestar is one of the banks that has hired Ms. Van Cleef. The Richmond, Va.-based bank would owe nearly $35 million on its $4.37 billion of thrift deposits.

"Clearly, the banks in the top 10 have very similar interests," he said. "Obviously, we all have an objective of making those numbers smaller."

In addition to the 85-cent fee, the Oakar banks face the same costs confronting every other commercial bank under the government's proposal to fix the thrift fund.

All banks would have to chip in to pay 75% of the annual interest due on the bonds floated in 1987 to begin the thrift industry's cleanup.

Interest on these Financing Corp., or Fico, bonds totals $780 million a year through 2017. That means the banking industry would be on the hook for $600 million, or 2.5 cents for every $100 of domestic deposits a bank holds, the FDIC estimates.

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