Hundreds of Sonoma County residents are joining local credit unions and community banks as part of a widespread movement urging Americans to pull their money out of the nation's biggest banks.
The nonprofit credit unions and at least one local bank will have extra staff on hand Saturday for Bank Transfer Day, an Internet-fueled protest that exhorts consumers to move their savings and checking accounts to local credit unions.
The grassroots movement gained traction after Bank of America's announcement — since rescinded — to charge a $5 monthly fee to debit card users. Participants in various Occupy protests around the country have simultaneously urged Americans to move their money from large banks to nonprofit credit unions.
An estimated 650,000 consumers have joined credit unions across the country since Sept. 29, the day of the BofA announcement, according to the Credit Union National Association, an industry trade group.
In just the last five weeks, new and existing members have shifted $4.5 billion into credit unions, the group said Thursday. The massive transfer of capital and rising tide of consumer anger has rattled the U.S. banking industry, prompting Bank of America, Wells Fargo and other banks to scrap the new debit card fees.
Redwood Credit Union, Sonoma County's second-largest financial institution with nearly $2 billion in assets, reports that the number of new members joining in October was double the count from a year earlier.
And nearly 600 of those new members said the BofA debit card fee "was the final breaking point," said Brett Martinez, the credit union's president and CEO.
Santa Rosa's Community First Credit Union, which has $122 million in assets, reported 219 new members joined the institution last month, a 72 percent jump over a year earlier.
"We've never had a month that's come close to this," said David Williams, a Community First vice president.
Among those visiting the credit union Thursday was retired engineer Mike Rogalski, 67, of Santa Rosa. Rogalski said he plans to begin shifting his funds slowly to the credit union from his bank, which he didn't want to name because he remains a customer there.
Despite the pullback on fees by BofA, the banks still plan to recoup debit card revenues and "they're going to do what it takes to reach their income target," he said. "It's going to come out of us."
Bank Transfer Day is credited to 27-year-old Los Angeles gallery owner Kristen Christian, who told an NBC Los Angeles news station that she was shocked when BofA, her bank, announced the debit card fee.
"If we shift our funds from the for-profit banking institutions in favor of not-for-profit credit unions before this date, we will send a clear message that conscious consumers won't support companies with unethical business practices," Christian wrote on the Transfer Day Facebook site. "It's time to invest in local community growth!"
As well, Occupy leaders have reached out to credit unions and passed out information about the nonprofit institutions, said Henry Kertman, a vice president with the California and Nevada Credit Union Leagues. Such information has been handed out at the Occupy Santa Rosa gathering at City Hall.
"It just seems that consumer frustration with banks has reached the tipping point," Kertman said. The new attention is providing his members a chance to show consumers "what a wonderful alternative credit unions are for members."