Nearly 500 angry customers of Community Savings & Loan put a human face on Maryland's thrift industry crisis last night, heckling, chastising and patiently pleading with a key state government official to grant them at least partial -- and immediate -- access to their deposits at the crippled Bethesda-based thrift.
"I wish I could say I was happy to be here," said a frowning Melville S. Brown, the state official who appeared at a school in Greenbelt to educate and soothe Community depositors, whose money was frozen Sept. 5 after the thrift's real estate subsidiary, known as EPIC, collapsed.
The visit by Brown, who directs the Maryland Deposit Insurance Fund (MDIF), marked the first personal appearance by a key member of Gov. Harry Hughes' administration before a large audience of savings and loan depositors.
Brown's reception, while generally polite, was punctuated repeatedly by jeers, derisive laughter and collective groans from members of the audience, many of whom have their life savings tied up in Community.
Spectators such as Patricia Johnson, a 32-year-old Davidsonville woman whose family of four has $10,000 tied up in Community, or Jerry Black, a 51-year-old management consultant from Rockville whose life savings are in the thrift, are by no means unique in the state.
Thousands of depositors at Old Court and Merritt Commercial savings and loans of Baltimore also have no access to their money.
MDIF is the conservator of Community, Old Court and Merritt and is working to manage the assets of those three thrifts so that depositors can eventually regain their money.
For nearly an hour last night, Brown urged the Community depositors to be patient and understanding while the state oversees the thrift association's affairs.
"There is no easy solution to this workout," Brown said. "That does not mean that depositors will not receive access to their funds prior to any final workout at EPIC."
But, Brown added, "I would be less than candid with you if I didn't tell you that I think it's highly unlikely there will be a total or significant modification" in the ban on withdrawals in the near future.
There were frequent cries of "When?" as Brown described the state's continuing effort to revitalize the cash-starved Bethesda thrift. And some in the audience said they were dissatisfied by Brown's assurances that they will eventually recover their deposits.
"He wasn't particularly revealing as to when we'll be able to get at our money," said Greenbelt Mayor Gil Weidenfeld, who has no access to more than $10,000 he has in a checking account and Individual Retirement Account at Community.
"When it comes to telling John Q. Public where his money is, the state just ain't with it," said Jerry Black. "This was all warmed over stuff tonight."
Others, however, said they believed Brown is trying to make the best of a bad situation. "He did a fine job tonight," said state Del. Gerard F. Devlin, a Prince George's County Democrat whose district includes Greenbelt.
Devlin said Brown "allayed some of the fears. No matter what happens, people will get their money back."
Others were not so certain. "Everybody keeps talking about the problem and does nothing," said Patricia Johnson, who traveled to the meeting from Anne Arundel County with her husband and two young children.
Johnson said she and her family are getting by on $900 a month, selling household goods to pay the $1,000 mortgage on their new home and eating twice a week with Johnson's mother and in-laws to make ends meet.
Her daughter is attending kindergarten in tennis shoes and has only three dresses to wear to school, Johnson said.
"You try and try to get on your feet and this thing keeps kicking you and knocking you down," Johnson said.