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March 26, 2009 Issue

FirstCity Bank closed Friday
Officials respond to bank closing
Florida man arrested

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FirstCity Bank closed Friday

By Carol McLeod
Staff writer

About 300 people crowded into the Glascock County Consolidated School gymnasium Sunday to learn more about the closing of the county’s only bank.

At 6 p.m. Friday, March 20, the Georgia Department of Banking and Finance closed FirstCity Bank, headquartered in Stockbridge, and its branches. The department appointed the FDIC as receiver.

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Linda Beavers, a regional ombudsman with the FDIC in Atlanta, said this is the fourth bank she has closed this year. A press release from the FDIC Beavers provided listed a total of 71 banks that have failed since Oct. 1, 2000.

Beavers was present over the weekend to respond to the concerns of customers.

The FDIC will mail checks to customers in the amount of their accounts when the bank was closed, she said. Additionally, any checks that had not cleared by the time the bank was closed will be returned to the bearer unpaid.

However, Beavers said the FDIC will send letters to the customers explaining why their checks were returned. The customers can then present those letters to verify they were not at fault for returned checks.

One customer asked what would happen to his state tax refund, which he had established to be sent to the bank.

The FDIC has made arrangements for certain direct deposits, including Social Security payments, to be redirected to certain branches of SunTrust Bank. Payments to the Gibson bank will be redirected to the SunTrust branch at 201 Jackson St. in Thomson.

Representatives from the FDIC called a town meeting for 3 p.m. Sunday, March 22, to talk with consumers and answer questions. The meeting was held in the gym/auditorium of the Glascock County Consolidated School in Gibson.

During the town meeting, representatives of the FDIC and a representative of the banking and finance department were on hand to provide information and answer questions.

Many of the citizens there expressed their surprise at the bank’s closing and said they had conducted business on Friday.

Anthony Griswell, chairman of the Glascock County Board of Commissioners, said it was important for everyone to remain calm and realize that everyone who had less than $250,000 in the bank is insured with the FDIC.

“The FDIC is here to help everybody,” he said, adding that everyone with insured accounts will get a check.



Officials respond to bank closing

By Faye Ellison
Staff Writer

With the current state of the economy, every American seems to be feeling the pinch, but those, locally, who used FirstCity Bank found Friday afternoon that the bank’s parent company defaulted on the trust and funds of its customers, leaving them in an even worse bind.

At 6 p.m. customers’ accounts were suspended, not allowing them to use their debit cards or making them subject to bouncing a check.

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This has infuriated some citizens, but Glascock County Commission Chairman Anthony Griswell said this crisis his constituents and even the county government faces has brought the tight-knit community even closer together.

“Naturally you could sense there was a crisis,” Griswell said Tuesday. “Anytime you mess with someone’s children or money, you have a crisis on your hands. But the FDIC sent a real professional team that was real courteous and good at explaining what to do next. At the meeting, they went through their program and all the questions got answered. As a whole everybody seemed very calm about it. They just knew they had to go through these steps to get their money back.”

Many community members questioned the steps taken to close the bank and why the public was not notified before they made their deposits up until it closed on Friday, leaving many moneyless until the FDIC checks arrive this week or they receive a loan.

Queensborough National Bank and Trust President Bill Easterlin explained that banks usually do not warn their customers of the impending closure, but many times the banks are purchased before they close completely.

“They normally don’t tell the customers, under normal circumstances, when the FDIC takes this step, there is normally a buyer for the bank,” Easterlin explained. “They close down on Friday and open up on Monday under a different name and it is pretty seamless for the customer. But in this instance, there was not a buyer for the bank, so the FDIC has to get the depositor their money.”

As soon as word spread of the armed guards flanking the bank’s doors, Griswell said he hurried to the Gibson building to get information for himself and the citizens of the county.

“Friday when it all went down, I went there and made friends with the person in charge to get as much information as I could,” he said. “They said they needed a place for a town meeting, so I called Jim [Holton] to see if we could use the school. Then we got flyers to the churches so they could announce it.

“At the meeting there was standing room only left. Everybody was real calm, I was proud to see how everybody was acting about this. The checks are getting to people. I just got mine in the mail today. By the end of the week, it’s liable to be squared away. I think in the end we will wind up with something good coming out of this.”

Some taxpayers may feel they were duped twice by the Stockbridge based bank, but Griswell assures the citizens that the county’s funds are safe. Last year in September, Griswell said the county’s auditor Mark Davis, of Jones, Jones, Davis and Associates, advised them of the Georgia One Fund through the Georgia Treasury. The Georgia One Fund is an account Griswell said most governments and schools use to store the money they have over the insured amount for banks.

“You place your money there, especially after collecting taxes,” he said. “You then draw down money from the account to operate the county on. They advised us of this and we have been in the process of getting this set up since back in the fall. The County Treasurer, Audrey Chalker, and I had discussions on this. I had a gut feeling that something like this could happen and I was concerned.”

Griswell said he notified the other Commissioners of the planned change and Chalker began the process of moving the funds that were over the insured amount.

“I said we need to do this and she felt the same way,” Griswell noted. “Even though the FDIC says government money is taken care of, through the years of experience Audrey and I have, I would rather know the money was there than to wonder. So I’m glad there was some foresight there. It wasn’t like people had knowledge of this prior to the bank closing; we just had a gut feeling of what we needed to do. We would probably be able to get our money, but why take risks, when you ask for these positions, you assume the responsibility of looking after the taxpayers’ dollars and I am glad our team was able to look after the people of Glascock County.”

Griswell said the county government will receive a check for its funds just like the citizens. And county employees will be paid this Thursday as well.

“We had already got some checks printed,” Griswell said. “We will have payroll checks going out without a hitch.”

The combined efforts of the county government, school system, local banks and the county’s citizens, Griswell believes, made this transition smother than what it could have been.

“Everybody has worked together,” he said. “I am very pleased with the way things were worked and handled. Audrey Chalker and Tracy Hutcheson, our clerk, they have been working real close together and have been in constant contact with the staff. And the school, they have been very beneficial. Jim Holton had everything at the disposal of the people. This is another time Glascock County came together.”

The Glascock County Board of Education had a plan in place for just such an occasion.

“We first learned about this in early February and we had an emergency called meeting,” Superintendent Holton said. “We met with the bank president and at that time, our board realized we needed to establish a plan. Prior to this we had most of the funds in Georgia Fund One and just a transactional account with FirstCity Bank. The board recognized there was a problem and wanted to support local businesses as much as possible, so we chose not to move our assets or account at the time. We took several measures to make sure funds entrusted to us were secure.”

Holton said within a matter of hours, the school system had an account established with another bank. There were a number of checks written by the system at the time of the bank’s closure, but all individuals and companies were contacted who received the checks and most are being sent back.

“We are fully operational at this point,” he said. “Our employees will be paid on time. To my knowledge we have not missed a lick. The board had a plan and we have not encountered anything but a heavy workload for the past couple of days. An inconvenience was about the worst of it.”

Holton said he also knew that many in the community would be worried about where their money was going and after being contacted about a town hall meeting site, he offered the school.

“We were pleased to be able to offer the school facility for a meeting of this magnitude.”

Griswell also sees a future for another bank in Glascock County.

“If I was in the banking business, this would be a golden opportunity to open a branch here. The people work hard here and want to pay their bills. Three bankers have already contacted me and said they were very interested to do something. We will get another bank. Naturally it takes time. That is where the hold up is right now. The FDIC is getting up all the information for these different banks, as far as making a purchase of the property. I will say in two to three weeks, there will be an announcement of someone coming to town.”

One bank that Griswell said has been very proactive in the community since FirstCity Bank’s closure is Queensborough National Bank and Trust, who have been on site in Gibson, and are currently in City Hall, to make short-term loans or help the citizens set up a new account with them.

“We visited the people in Gibson to let them know we would be available to help them with all services,” Easterlin said. “This cut them off from all access to money, If they needed short-term loans, we would help out that way or they could start a new checking or savings account.”

Easterlin said Queensborough has extra staff at their Wrens and Thomson locations to help open accounts and answer questions.

“It’s unfortunate that this happened to good folks in Glascock County,” he said. “Many customers had to change a banking relationship that they have had for years and years, now all of a sudden they have to change. It is difficult to do this in the best of circumstances. It is unfortunate that it happened, but we are glad to help.”

On Saturday and Monday, Queensborough has had former FirstCity customers open well over 100 accounts and he believes there would be more on Tuesday. He stated that he expected many people establish accounts with the FDIC checks as well.

Easterlin also wanted customers who receive government checks including Social Security to know that the money will be deposited with SunTrust Banks. Those customers may go to SunTrust in Thomson with proper identification to receive their money.

“I think there are several alternatives there for this bank,” Easterlin said. “It is hard to tell how many deposits there were in Glascock County, the bank did pay high CD rates, so it is hard to tell how much business is there with customers from other areas driving in. I think every bank is assessing that situation, us included.”

James Neal said he had been a customer of the bank for 15 or 20 years and that his church had been a member for a long time.

“All of its days,” Neal said of his church. “Back when it was the Bank of Gibson, before it was FirstCity. It was way back.”

Neal said the closing took him by surprise.

“I cashed my check Friday about 2 o’clock,” he said.

“Then I got a phone call Friday night. It surprised me. Everything seemed normal Friday.”

He said he was not worried about any of his money that he had had in the bank.

Walter Marsh and his wife, Kathryn Marsh, read the statement FDIC representatives had handed out to the crowd.

When asked if he was worried about his money, he said, “Not at this point. Not right yet.”

Mr. Marsh did say he had been surprised by the bank’s closing.

His main concern Sunday was what will happen to his direct deposits he had established with the bank now that it is closed.

“I just think we should have been notified,” Mrs. Marsh said.

Kay and Boyd Reeves, also depositors, said they, too, were surprised.

Mrs. Reeves said she was hopeful that the FDIC will be able to take care of everything and added that her and her husband’s account is insured.

“We’re well under the maximum,” she said.

The FDIC had tried to sell the bank but could not locate a buyer, said Daniel Bell, a closing manager and receiver-in-charge with the FDIC.

Rickey McCullough, another FDIC representative who moderated the meeting, said 480 packages had been sent out requesting bids on the bank.

“Only five came back,” he said. “Then they decided they weren’t interested at all.”

Larry Glazener, a post closing asset manager with the FDIC, advised customers who had borrowed money from the bank to continue to make their payments.

“Try to refinance somewhere else,” he said. “If you are unable to do that, we will continue to service those loans.”

Direct deposits from government agencies are being accepted by SunTrust Bank; although direct deposits from other sources, such as non-government payroll checks, will be returned to the issuer.

Customers should receive checks from the FDIC for all insured accounts during the upcoming week.

Checks customers had written that had not cleared by close of business on Friday will be returned.

The FDIC will provide customers with a statement explaining the bank had been closed and that any returned checks were not the fault of the customer.

Mrs. Reeves said she could only hope the businesses who had received checks from her and her husband would take the statement into consideration and waive their returned check fees.

“We have about 10 checks out,” she said.



Florida man arrested

By Carol McLeod
Staff Writer

Officers from the Wadley Police Department and the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office surrounded a house on Butts Street in Wadley Wednesday, March 18.

A man WPD Chief Wesley Lewis said had four warrants in Florida was suspected to be inside, refusing to open the door or step outside.

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The chief said he and his men could not break in to the house without a warrant.

“The reason we couldn’t kick the door in was we didn’t have a positive ID of the person who was inside the house. We knew someone was in there but we didn’t know who because he was refusing to come to the door when Sgt. (Don) Meadows knocked on the door and I knocked on the window,” Lewis said.

The chief said his office had contacted the homeowner who was in Augusta. When the homeowner arrived, she was expected to unlock the door and allow officers into the home.

About 7 p.m., the homeowner had not arrived and Deputy Michael Dallas approached the front door of the home and knocked.

Outside, another officer, Sgt. Meadows, was in the front yard standing behind and to the side of a tree. Another officer, Cpl. Joseph Mentor of the JCSO, was crouched behind a car and a third officer, WPD Investigator Leroy Morgan, was in the back yard watching the back of the house.

WPD Cpl. Ricky Worman was watching the east side of the house. Chief Lewis was approaching the front of the home from the east side.

All officers were armed and three of them had drawn their weapons. Lewis had said at the scene it was unknown if the man inside the house had weapons but they had been told he may have three or four firearms.

“Come on out,” Dallas said as he knocked on the door. The deputy told the man, identified as Sherwin T. Birt of Jacksonville, Fla., that the homeowner was on her way and she would let them inside.

The deputy heard a noise behind him and realized a second door in the front was being opened.

As he turned, the man exited the home and was ordered to stop, which he did.

Florida has warrants against Birt for burglary, which is a felony; destroying and tampering with evidence, a felony; receiving stolen property, a misdemeanor; and a bench warrant for failure to appear in court, a misdemeanor.

“Prior to these charges, he had been in prison in Florida for attempted murder and burglary,” Morgan said.

Those charges involved two separate cases; although, Birt served concurrent sentences, he said.

Locally, Birt has been charged with two felonies, unauthorized distribution of controlled substance and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. A .357 Magnum was found in the house, Morgan said.

“He does have some recording studio equipment he brought from Florida,” Morgan said, adding an investigation was ongoing to determine if any of these items were stolen.

“It’s probably worth close to $20,000,” Morgan said of the equipment.

The investigator said he had received information that Birt was in this particular house and notified Chief Lewis.

The chief commended all the men involved in the arrest.

“I’d just like to say that my officers did an excellent job and we really appreciate all of the help the sheriff’s office provided,” Lewis said.




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