Cartel, the Buffalo-based transaction processing network that is mounting a challenge to national and regional funds transfer systems, won a key endorsement outside its home state of New York.

The Community Bank League of New England, Boston, signed an agreement giving its 115 member institutions access to Cartel locations.

The New England group has vocally opposed the trend among larger banks and other automated teller machine owners to impose surcharges-the additional fees of $1 or more charged to noncustomers of the machine-owning organization.

Independent bankers have objected to the charges' subtext: that a consumer can avoid them by switching to a big ATM-deploying bank. The New England league sees Cartel membership as a way to underscore its anti- surcharge message.

Gene B. Graham, executive vice president of the trade group, said Cartel offers "a network alternative to the ATMs operated by a few large banks in the Boston area that engage in unnecessary surcharging and are attempting to take customer accounts away from community and independent financial institutions."

While Cartel has used alliance and processing agreements to assemble a nationwide network of 16,674 terminal locations in 48 states, its participant signings had been concentrated in New York.

In recent months, Cartel gained endorsements from the 120-member Community Bankers Association of New York State and 101-member Independent Bankers Association of New York State. Financial institutions with access to Cartel now total 711.

Joseph E. Wolfson, chairman and chief executive officer of Cartel and its two-and-a-half-year-old operating company, Integrated Delivery Technologies, said, "We are far beyond the start-up phase and a force to be reckoned with."

He said Cartel is benefiting from retailers' and smaller financial institutions' disaffection from regional network giants like MAC or NYCE, particularly with regard to pricing and customer service.

Some of that bubbled over at NYCE Corp.'s recent annual conference in Boston.

Larry Friedman, vice president of financial services at Price Chopper Supermarkets, Schenectady, N.Y., complained about a tripling of the debit card interchange fee, from 4 cents, and about how his front-line people often take the flak for bank-caused customer-service problems.

He also railed against the off-line debit services, MasterMoney and Visa check, as "our biggest scourge .... It is cost-prohibitive to retailers and dangerous to consumers."

Price Chopper was one of Mr. Wolfson's earliest supporters, and it welcomes Cartel cardholders. But Mr. Friedman also praised NYCE for listening better, having formed a merchant advisory board.

"We really would like to work together," Mr. Friedman said. "We have concerns, and you need retailer input."

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