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Brockton pulls $170m payroll from Bank of America

Brockton will move its $170 million payroll account out of Bank of America, a move the city says makes good business sense but which advocates for residents facing foreclosure see as a just response to the national lender’s role in the subprime mortgage crisis.

City Treasurer Martin Brophy said the 3,500-person payroll account will move to Eastern Bank this summer, after local officials reviewed proposals from five banks, including Bank of America.

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The review is performed every three years to ensure Brockton gets the best bang for its buck, and, he said, in this case the switch means a savings of $20,000 to $30,000 a year in fees.

Bank of America offered no-fee accounts in 2009 but has since begun charging fees, Brophy said, adding, “The game changed.’’

Both Brophy and Mayor Linda Balzotti adamantly denied making the change based solely on the foreclosure issue. But each also said it didn’t hurt to send a powerful message.

T.J. Crawford, a Bank of America spokesman, said in an e-mail that the bank doesn’t comment on individual client accounts.

“But I’ll point out that we still maintain a significant banking relationship with the City of Brockton,’’ he said.

‘For me, what the city has done is about business, but it is also symbolic. Bank of America should not get another penny from the City of Brockton.’

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The nonprofit grass-roots group Brockton Interfaith Community has lobbied Brophy, Balzotti, and the 11-member City Council for the past two years to divest from the national bank and others at the heart of the housing disaster.

Brockton has been hobbling since 2008 with the highest foreclosure rate in the state, according to the 2012 annual report by the Massachusetts Foreclosed Properties Initiative.

As of April, the once-booming industrial leader had 950 distressed properties in some stage of foreclosure, said Janine Carreiro-Young, the advocacy group’s executive director. That doesn’t include people who are just receiving notices of foreclosure, she said.

“In June alone, we had 32 notices go out, and 29 deeds filed, which is the final step,’’ she said. “A lot of families who were caught up in foreclosure, but who hadn’t lost their homes yet, are losing them now, as well.”

According to The Warren Group, which tracks real estate statistics, Massachusetts has seen at least 49,264 foreclosures since January 2007. So far this year, 265 petitions for foreclosure have been filed in the city, bringing Brockton to a 1.28 percent foreclosure filing rate for its 21,942 units, Warren officials said. The tiny town of Athol also has a 1.28 percent rate of filings for its 3,829 housing units.

In March, members of the Brockton Interfaith Community, Coalition for Social Justice, and City Life asked the City Council to divest, pegging Bank of America as the institution with the poorest rate nationally of loan modifications per the federal Home Affordable Modification Program, which was created to address the crisis.

Advocates at the time also said the lender was lax in working with groups such as Neighborhood Housing Services of the South Shore to modify local loans. That group deferred all comment to Carreiro-Young.

Bank of America still holds the city’s school-lunch account and its health care trust fund. Brophy said he plans to review the school-lunch account, which currently has $500,000 but will spike once school reconvenes. Then, it will see as many as 20 large deposits a day, he said.

He said there are no immediate plans to look at the health care trust account, which currently totals approximately $10 million.

Officials at the Massachusetts Municipal Association said they were not aware of any other communities taking similar steps to divest from national banks.

Balzotti said the fact that the divestiture parallels efforts for accountability “worked out well,” but she maintained she told advocates 18 months ago that she wouldn’t change banks just for the sake of changing banks.

The fact that Eastern’s proposal had no fees and included paper stock for printing the payroll checks was motivation to switch, she said.

“I didn’t want to disrupt the payroll process,” she said. “Quite frankly, in three years we will do the same thing, and if someone’s proposal is better, we will go for it.’’

Next up for its three-year review in 2013 is the city’s accounts payables account, Balzotti said. The balance of that account, which is currently held with Rockland Trust, is approximately $1.3 million, including uncashed checks, Brophy said.

City Councilor at Large Jass Stewart has lobbied for Brockton’s divestiture from Bank of America, filing a resolve asking the city for official action.

“For me, what the city has done is about business, but it is also symbolic,’’ Stewart said. “Bank of America should not get another penny from the City of Brockton.”

He said that, in addition to divesting from Bank of America, he’d like to see the city require mandatory mediation between homeowners and their banks before foreclosure is declared. He’d also like the city to charge banks a mandatory fee to be held in escrow when a property is seized, to ensure it is maintained.

Carreiro-Young said she’s glad to see funds divested from the banking giant but frankly had expected more of a direct commitment from the city to its residents.

“Truth be told, it’s great the city has taken a step to move some of its money, but I don’t understand why they’re not doing it for the sake of the residents of Brockton,’’ Carreiro-Young said. The move does save money for Brockton taxpayers, but she said she is disappointed the city didn’t do what it did to expressly make a statement against the bank.

Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at michelebolton@live.com.
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