Community bankers may only be paying lip service to the virtues of technology, according to a survey by the consultants at Grant Thornton.

Though nearly all the respondents expressed a belief that they need technology to stay competitive, they are not willing - at least not yet - to spend the money required to get it.

"If community bankers don't keep up with technology, they might not be able to catch up," said Diane M. Casey, national director of financial services at Chicago-based Grant Thornton, which is releasing the survey results this week. "They have to be really careful not to let it all pass them by."

In the survey, 57% said they intend to spend less than $50,000 on technology in 1996. Only 7% said they will spend $250,000 or more.

The responses came from 752 banks averaging $82 million in assets.

Experts in the field said it is difficult to draw generalizations about community banking from the survey. But the responses show that many community banks are still hesitant to make a full-scale commitment to technology.

For Anthony S. Abbate, chief executive of $490 million-asset Interchange State Bank in Saddle Brook, N.J., it comes down to demographics. How much a bank spends on technology should be determined by its customers and their needs, he said.

"It's great to have all the latest bells and whistles, but what the hell good are they if your customers don't want them or don't need them?" he said.

For example, shortly after Interchange State implemented an automated telephone service, it received a flood of calls from some of its older customers asking what the pound key is.

"We had to tell them it's the tick-tack-toe sign under the number nine," Mr. Abbate said. "It's nice to have something like that, but you have to make sure people can use it."

The conservatism of many small-town bankers and the affordability of technology were the two main factors influencing the survey results, bankers and consultants speculated.

Technology "is the hottest topic in banking today," said Harold Brewer, chief executive of Brintech Inc., a New Smyrna Beach, Fla.-based consulting firm for community banks. "And even though bankers are conservative, they are beginning to realize that it's important to their success."

Having made that realization, banks must then develop a plan for assessing their needs and for adopting new technology, something that a disturbingly large number of the survey respondents have failed to do, Ms. Casey said. Only a third of the banks were said to have a technology operating plan in place, and 20% more plan to adopt one in 1996.

"They say they want to spend more, but they don't have a plan for it," Ms. Casey said. "It's safe to conclude that community banks need to step back and plan out where they want to be with technology usage in the next five years."

Of those that do plan to spend more on technology in 1996 than in 1995, the top reason cited was competition, followed by a desire to expand capacity and a need to replace existing systems. The least-cited reason for technology spending was to prepare for future growth.

Among institutions that intend to increase expenditures this year, 59% said they would do so in training, and 57% in computer technology in general.

Looking ahead 34% said the future lies with local area networks. But that future won't come until the costs come down, some community bankers said.

In Iuka, Miss., for example, First American National Bank would like to buy a check-imaging machine, but the $250,000 cost is too much for the bank to handle.

"We're trying to keep up with the Joneses or the big-city banks, but some of these things aren't within our reach just yet," said Deborah Bowling, vice president at the $112 million-asset institution.

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