When Gov. Harry Hughes announced last month that he had come up with a plan to ease the freeze on savings and loan deposits in two of the state's beleaguered financial institutions, state officials braced for the big rush.
But shortly after noon today, as about 100 of the first approvals were sent out from a makeshift office, all but two of the 12 computers borrowed from other state agencies sat unused. The 16 phones rang infrequently. In another room at the state Motor Vehicle Administration headquarters here, stacks of office supplies were unopened.
Stephen Minnich, a manager on loan from the Department of Human Resources, said he expects an avalanche of about 20,000 applications to arrive during the next few months from savings and loan depositors pleading for access to frozen bank accounts.
But so far, only about 300 applications have trickled into the eight-day-old hardship relief headquarters.
The hardship program initiated by Hughes provides relief for depositors who need cash for medical bills, tuition expenses, funeral expenses and property settlement payments. The criteria also include a separate category for people who need access to their funds for daily expenses and who meet certain income limits.
Minnich said that most of the requests he has received have come from people asking to release money for tuition payments and "necessities of life" that are decided on a case-by-case basis.
The eight applicants that have been rejected so far, Minnich said, either did not fit into the criteria established for the program or failed to provide extra documentation such as tax returns to prove their eligibility.
Hughes, accompanied by three press aides and trailed by a horde of television cameras and reporters, took a lunchtime tour of the office today, shook several hands and pronounced himself well pleased.
"I want to commend you," he told about 20 employes. "Excellent work."
The emergency relief program was approved Oct. 18 by Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan for about 70,000 people who have money in Old Court Savings and Loan of Baltimore and Community Savings and Loan of Bethesda.
Old Court, the thrift that triggered a financial crisis in several savings and loans, has been under state conservatorship since May and was placed in state receivership last Friday, a condition similar to bankruptcy. Community funds have been frozen for more than two months.
Hughes said he will take another look at the program in the coming weeks to see how well it is working and hopes to have a general distribution plan worked out to allow access for nonhardship depositors by January.
Hughes said that 75 percent of the $5 billion in deposits originally affected by the savings and loan collapse in the spring have since been freed.
The remaining money is in First Maryland Savings and Loan, Old Court and Community. A 30-day freeze on withdrawals is in effect at Silver Spring-based First Maryland, so it remains outside the hardship plan.
Disgruntled depositors, many of whom plan to attend a protest march in Annapolis on Saturday to which the governor has been invited, are not uniformly happy with the withdrawal plan.
"If you look at the criteria for hardship, the way they define hardship makes it very difficult to get your money," said Fred Schnur, a Columbia resident who is a member of the Maryland Savings and Loan Depositors Committee.
Schnur said that Hughes' plan is "another thing that sounds good and really does very, very little."
A toll-free number (1-800-638-6433) has been established to answer depositors' questions, and most of the people calling in now are asking for a clarification of the guidelines.
Once those questions have been answered, Minnich said optimistically, he expects the real rush for money to begin.
In any case, Minnich probably will have to answer all the questions and clear out of the Motor Vehicle Administration offices by January. That's when the annual registration tag rush begins.