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By Mark L. Luderman

When the Dodd-Frank Act (regulations designed to prevent another subprime lending crisis in the banking industry) was signed into law, financial pundits speculated on how consumers would be affected. The act requires banks to provide customers with clear explanations of the terms on credit cards, prevents them from raising interest rates on existing balances unless the borrower is more than 60 days late and, when a borrower has a card with, for example, a lower rate on purchases than on cash advances, requires the bank to apply payments to the highest rate debt first. The end result: Creditors and banks are seeing much lower profits on credit card accounts.

One of the effects on consumers has been that to make up for falling profits on lending and credit, big banks have raised fees on checking accounts and made it tougher for customers to have no-fee checking accounts by increasing required minimum balances. Fees for overdrafts and use of ATMs have also gone up.

Almost everyone has a checking account in order to pay bills. This means almost everyone is impacted by increased fees, and the middle class, already struggling to make ends meet, suffers most. There’s no requirement for checking account agreements to be transparent (unlike credit card agreements) so consumers are being hit with fees they don’t expect.

While it’s not easy to change banks, consumers who are losing money to fees on their checking accounts should consider this option and shop for a bank that better suits their needs. Community banks (Western New York offers a wide variety of choices) are often the common-sense solution for consumers seeking low-cost checking.

Community banks are a different animal than the “too-big-to-fail” banks. In fact, as Camden R. Fine, president and CEO of the Independent Community Bankers of America, says, “Wall Street’s model is transaction-based, while Main Street’s is relationship-based.” My colleagues and I are well aware it would be unwise to risk our personal reputations and the value of our banks by misleading our customers.

The new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has stated it is counting on community banks to help establish a level playing field so that customers understand the true costs of financial products, and to ensure every banking customer has access to products that suit his or her individual needs.

As former House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill said, “All politics are local.” Well, community banks are local, too, and personal finances are even more local. Community banks may be the answer for the besieged middle class – or anyone – who can’t afford or doesn’t want to pay the new fees attached to big-bank checking accounts.

Mark L. Luderman is president of the Bank of Holland, and a member of the Independent Bankers Association.