The elderly Maryland woman had an emergency. There was no way, she told the state official at the end of the consumer hotline, that she could spend the summer at her $250,000, seven-bedroom Chesapeake Bay estate unless she was allowed to draw money out of her savings and loan account. How, she asked, would she pay the servants?
The tearful Florida woman called the consumer hotline with a different kind of emergency. The woman and her midwestern daughter, a cancer patient just released from the National Institutes of Health, were stranded here without airfare back to their respective homes or money to pay for the mother's two-week motel bill. The mother's funds were frozen in a Maryland savings and loan.
In the more than two months since Maryland imposed strict limits on withdrawals from privately insured savings and loan associations, hundreds of thousands of depositors with money tied up by the state are facing financial problems ranging from inconvenience to hardship. But on the whole, they appear to be muddling through.
In May, faced with a run on deposits at several of Maryland's 102 privately insured savings and loan associations, state officials restricted withdrawals to $1,000 from most of the institutions.
Since then, the state has gradually eased some of the restrictions, but for many depositors their money is still tied up in the 26 institutions where withdrawals are still limited.
Their financial situations are similar to the problem facing the Andover Heights Community Association in Laurel. Its creditors have been understanding, but the group's leaders are worried about how long that understanding will last.
"We're apprehensive," said Ann Davis, president of the association, which operates a community swimming pool used by a condominium owners association and the Andover Heights swim team. The group's bills, which amount to more than $26,000 annually, fall due mainly in the summer. So far, the association's insurance, utility and pool management companies have indicated a willingness to cooperate, but Davis is worried about $4,000 that is due next month.
"We've always paid our bills on time, and we've always had good credit," Davis said."But I don't know if we can pay our next bills on August 15th."
Almost immediately after the savings and loan crisis the Maryland Department of Licensing and Regulation set up a consumer hotline to try to help depositors with their money problems. Hotline officials say the number of calls has begun to decline; but in many cases, they add, the callers now seem even more worried as the restrictions drag on with no apparent end in sight.
"The hotline calls peaked at 300 a day in the last week of May, and have been steadily declining to between 75 and 100 calls a day," said Alan Thomas Fell, Maryland's commissioner of consumer credit, who directs the state's savings and loan consumer response team. "But the calls now are more intense because consumers have situations where they're in desperate need for alternative financing."
Fell cited the example of a southern Maryland tobacco farmer and his wife who deposited the earnings they receive once a year from their entire crop in a savings and loan insured by the former Maryland Savings-Share Corp. (MSSIC). Now, hefty bills requiring withdrawals of more than $1,000 are coming in for fertilizer, seed and and other supplies necessary for the new crops.
"They were caught in the crunch and are unable to get the money because they don't fit into any of Gov. [Harry] Hughes' exemptions," said George L. Rayburn, assistant commissioner of consumer credit for Maryland's Department of Licensing and Regulation, who takes many of the calls to the S&L consumer hotline.
"People believe that Hughes has the power to make personal exemptions, but if he did that, we would have chaos. Everyone has a personal situation, and we sympathize with that, but we cannot break the rules."
Shortly after imposing the initial $1,000 limit on all withdrawals, Hughes exempted four types of accounts from the restriction: general escrow accounts, such as those commonly used by lawyers; payroll accounts; real estate escrow accounts, including those used by prospective home buyers to set aside down payments for new homes, and accounts held by businesses in which an S&L has a holding.
Hughes' exemption provisions also cover persons over 65 who need funds for medical care as well as other persons who need funds for medical emergencies. Tuition payments are exempted if they fall due while the executive order is in effect and alternative funding cannot be found.
Two weeks ago, Hughes made additional exemptions, which allow depositors to withdraw funds to pay insurance premiums, "ground rent" (a state-sanctioned mortgage arrangement similar to a 99-year lease), condominium fees and property taxes. These exemptions apply only to so-called "expense accounts," special funds that are used solely for payment of loans or specific expenses such as condominium fees or ground rents.
Many consumers who must pay property taxes aren't exempted under the governor's new order because no loan is involved, and only real estate taxes required to secure the protection of a loan are exempt, said Robert Hyatt, vice president of Fairfax Savings and Loan, one of the thrifts still restricted under the governor's order.
Hughes acknowledged in May that there would be hardships under the state restrictions. "You're going to have hardships -- we know that," he said. "But we can't open it up too wide. I'm sorry, but that just has to be the case. We'll work out of it."
"Working out of it" is proving difficult for those cases that fall through the cracks, according to officials' accounts of problems described by depositors who contacted the state's consumer hotline.
*One case is that of a woman who was renting an apartment for herself and her mother in a building that was sold suddenly. When the woman found a house to purchase, her funds were tied up in one of the privately insured savings and loan associations, so she could not make the necessary $5,000 deposit. At the same time, the two were expected to vacate their apartment within 30 days.
State officials sent the woman to borrow money from another institution.
*In another case, a man from Pakistan was unable to withdraw enough money to buy airline tickets home for himself and his family. The man has been living in the area for several years on a student visa, which expires in August.
"He really has a problem because he has to leave the country in August, and he won't be able to get a loan as a foreign national," said Rayburn. Donald P. Callahan, a Bowie man, said he lost about $1,000 because he was about to sell his condominium unit in Ocean City to an Owings Mill, Md., man whose funds were tied up in Fairfax Savings and Loan. "We were just about to settle, and he couldn't come up with the money," Callahan said.
Callahan said he had moved his furniture out of the apartment, which precluded renting it immediately. "For two months, the unit was empty and I was forced to make mortgage and condominium payments," he said.
*John R. Pancella, a 53-year-old Rockville man, had just retired from the Montgomery County Public School system and was trying to get his full retirement benefits by purchasing from the state government additional years of work based on his years of employment in Pennsylvania. Pancella can only purchase the extra time at his final salary rate during his last year of employment. He was planning to withdraw money from the $34,000 he has in a NOW account in Community Savings and Loan when the crisis hit.
Pancella, who used political pull to obtain a stay of payment, said he would suffer a "significant loss of current and future income" if he were unable to purchase the additional years of employment.
*Another case involved a woman who needed money for her son who is attending the University of Pennsylvania. Her son's tuition is covered under exemptions authorized by the governor, but the tuition fees represent only one fifth of his annual college costs. The university is demanding full payment of the first-semester's rent on an off-campus apartment -- $635 a month -- by the beginning of August.
"She'll just have to borrow money from another institution," Rayburn said.
Rayburn and others at the consumer hotline have suggested a number of alternative institutions that financially strapped depositors may turn to for help, including Household Bank, Equitable Trust Co., Suburban Trust Co., Maryland National Bank, Union Trust Co,, Savings Bank of Baltimore and Commercial Credit.
But some savings and loan customers balk at having to seek a loan elsewhere. "We've had some cases we couldn't work out," Fell said. "A lot of people have a moral problem with going to another institution for a loan."
Robert Beyer, 38, the owner of Beyer Insurance Agency in Westminster, Md., is one depositor who says he won't go to another bank for additional funds. Beyer still has $65,000 in business funds tied up in Old Court Savings and Loan.
"I don't think I should even have to consider taking a loan from another institution," Beyer said. "If the state is not allowing me to have my money, the state should give me the money tax free and put a lien on my funds in Old Court."
Depositors are facing even more serious troubles at Old Court, where the governor's exemptions don't apply. Reports of management changes and possible criminal misconduct by top officers at Old Court touched off the crisis of confidence in Maryland's $10 billion thrift industry in early May.
Anthony Russo, a 60-year-old Cambridge, N.Y., man, had recently retired from his wholesale egg business in New York and was living on the interest from his certificates of deposit in Old Court.
Now, "I'm really sweating," said Russo, who had been set to borrow against his CDs to purchase land for a small shopping center in Vermont when the thrift was put under a conservatorship.
"I couldn't put my stores up, and I lost the $6,500 deposit I had put down for the land," he said. "I've borrowed money against my home from the local bank. But I'm going to have to borrow more money, and after that there's a good chance I could lose my place. Where do I go from here?"
The governor's exemptions also do not apply at Merritt Commerical Savings and Loan, another Baltimore thrift that, like Old Court, is now under conservatorship. However, even depositors with financial needs covered by exemptions say they are frustrated about the lack of information they have been getting from state officials over the past month.
"I'm more mad than concerned," said Beyer. "The people at Maryland Deposit Insurance Corporation won't talk to me, and I can't talk to the judge or the attorney general's office.
Many eldery depositors say they are not relieved by the reassurances of state officials. Some mention that they lived through the Depression and that the same reassurances were uttered then.
"They remember the statements, 'Don't worry, don't worry, don't worry,' " Fell said. "Their memories are a lot stronger than our reassurances."
And frustration often turns into emotional anger, Rayburn noted. One woman he describes as "literally suicidal" called the hotline several times. Rayburn said another depositor issued a threat over the hotline: "If I can't get my money out with a deposit, I'll just get it out with a gun."
Still, not all of the calls to the hotline are complaints. Many consumers just want to know the status of their thrift and when state restrictions will be lifted, Fell noted.
But state officials say the worst may not be over. "We're in a valley right now, but if the crisis goes on much longer, the calls could peak again," Fell said.