As Sovereign Bancorp of Wyomissing, Pa., moves into New England, it has set a 75-cent automated teller machine surcharge for those states and is touting this fee as a customer-friendly "statement."

Sovereign, which charges $1.50 to noncustomers who use its ATMs in the Middle Atlantic states, is buying 285 branches in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island that were divested as part of the recent merger of Fleet Financial Group and BankBoston Corp. These branches have 556 ATMs.

FleetBoston charges noncustomers 75 cents at its 1,411 ATMs in Massachusetts, but it charges $1 at its 554 machines in Connecticut and Rhode Island.

In March, Sovereign took over the branches it bought in Connecticut and Rhode Island, and began surcharging 75 cents at the machines there. By the end of July, it will have converted the Massachusetts branches, which have 392 ATMs.

"We are sensitive to the valid concerns about the expense of ATMs," said John Hamill, chairman and chief executive officer of Sovereign Bank New England, "and decided to enter the New England market with an affordable rate."

Some banks have used no-fee policies as a public relations maneuver, but if Sovereign's move is a sign of the times, it may now be enough for a banking company simply to declare that it is keeping its surcharge low. The most recent U.S. Public Interest Research Group survey, of 336 banks in March 1999, said the average surcharge was $1.37.

Fleet began charging 75 cents at its machines in late 1998. Last September, under pressure from Massachusetts State Treasurer Shannon O'Brien, the merging bank companies promised to freeze Fleet's fee and cut the BankBoston charge, which had been $1.

A spokesman for Ms. O'Brien said Sovereign chose the 75-cent fee without any pressure from her office - at least none direct. "The FleetBoston fees set a benchmark for other banks," the spokesman said.

Mr. Hamill said Sovereign "decided to go on a consistent basis throughout New England, given the fact that there are people who move throughout New England, rather than having a hodgepodge of charges." The fee is meant to send a "signal to a number of noncustomers and customers that we intend to be a consumer-friendly bank."

James Schepker, a spokesman for FleetBoston said, "I don't think it's a competitive advantage because it's not a fee they're charging their customers."

The climate in Connecticut is perhaps the most intriguing. In December, after a protracted legal battle, its Supreme Court overturned the state banking commissioner's four-year prohibition on surcharges. First Union Corp. and FleetBoston wasted no time in imposing $1 fees, but other banking companies hesitated initially.

Five months later, more companies have adopted surcharges. Webster Bank, a Waterbury, Conn., thrift that began imposing a $1 fee Monday, is trying to take the edge off by practically turning the move into a good deed.

Its ATMs had been clogged by noncustomers who were presumably choosing Webster because of its increasingly distinctive no-fee policy. "We're not apologetic about it because we think we're doing the best thing for our customers," said Michael Bazinet, a Webster spokesman.

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