BAUMHOLDER, Germany — Go to the Naples Personnel Support Detachment Web site and there’s a wondrous number on a message crawling atop the screen.

“Today’s euro rate is .7599.”

That’s about 3 cents more than the military’s Community Bank rate, which is relatively high compared with private banks’ rates.

Still, those based in Europe know just how much the dollar’s buying power has shrunk.

The dollar — once worth as much as 1.20 euro — has dropped about 38 percent against the 12-nation euro since early 2002.

Military personnel overseas can defray some of the pain by becoming exchange-rate savvy, as rates and terms vary widely between base banks and commercial banks in Europe.

Still, getting the best rate often comes down to being at the right place at the right time. Lucky sailors in Naples are — for the moment — getting a better rate than the rest of Europe because the Navy PSD is still selling euros it bought when the dollar peaked earlier this month.

Chief Petty Officer Leonard Page, disbursing officer at the Naples PSD, said he orders euros biweekly, or more often if demand is expected to increase.

“On the three- or four-day weekends, they hit us pretty hard,” Page said of PSD’s customers.

The Naples PSD gets dollars from the Frankfurt office of Bank of America, the San Francisco-based banking giant that operates the government-owned Community Bank for overseas military personnel.

The Naples PSD “is the largest cash operation in Europe,” Page says. “You won’t find another operation like it. They call us ‘The Bank of Naples.’ ”

Page orders about $8 million each month, supplying dollars and euros to cash cages, the Navy Exchange, the commissary and remote bases such as Gaeta Naval Support Facility, Page said.

The PSD sells the euros at cost: “The government’s not allowed to make money,” Page said.

But businesses are.

Community Bank is a business, operated by Bank of America under contract for a flat fee, said Patrick T. Shine, director of military and civilian pay services at Defense Finance and Accounting Services. That said, the fees generated by services such as currency exchange don’t go to Bank of America but go to help defray Community Bank operating expenses, Shine said.

Each day’s exchange rate includes a 2.5 percent fee added to the bank-to-bank exchange rate — the money banks charge each other for currency, Shine said in a telephone interview from his Washington, D.C., office.

“This fee is used to defray the cost of currency acquisition and delivery to the customer at the [automatic teller machines] or teller window,” Shine said.

The government’s Overseas Military Banking Program has its own treasury, and shops for millions of dollars of currency every day, Shine said.

Buying at “bulk rate” yields better exchange rates for Community Bank customers, he said.

The Community Bank rates typically compare favorably to German banks even with the 2.5 percent fee. A sampling of exchange rates Friday, March 11, and Monday, March 15, showed that the Community Bank rate of .727 euros per dollar was higher than several German banks’ rates.

The Volksbank-Raffeisenbank in Baumholder was giving .719 euros per dollar and the Dresdner Bank in Darmstadt was giving .715 euros per dollar. The Commerzbank in Darmstadt nearly matched the Community Bank rate, at .72 euros per dollar.

But most banks charge a substantial fee to cash dollar checks, then convert them to euros for rent or utility payments.

When Europe-based Americans need euros, they often do the convenient thing — they go to the local military-authorized bank or credit union on base.

First Lt. William Weiland of the 501st Military Intelligence Battalion, said he assumes the Community Bank at H.D. Smith Barracks in Baumholder offers better exchange rates than banks on the economy, especially for depositors. Weiland exchanges about $1,000 for euros each month to pay his rent.

And Weiland is right for an unexpected reason.

What most don’t realize is that the 2.5 percent Community Bank exchange fee is offset by an equal increase in their overseas housing allowance and cost of living allowance, according to DFAS officials.

That’s a revelation even to troops and their family members used to coping with foreign currencies.

First Lt. James Calladro of Headquarters and Headquarters Battery, 4th Battalion, 27th Field Artillery Regiment in Baumholder, said he was surprised to learn that the 2.5 percent exchange fee is built into COLA and his housing allowance.

Others living overseas say euro accounts and a little planning can make the dollar go farther. Many German banks waive currency transaction fees for account holders, according to bank employees.

For example, Deutsche Bank waives its fee of 4 euros 50 cents per check and Kreissparkasse waives its 6-euro fee, according to bank employees.

Jack Dougan, a math teacher at Baumholder American High School, said he avoids some exchange fees by writing one check a month for his rent, utility bills, auto insurance and cash. His Kreissparkasse branch in Birkenfeld charges a 10-euro service charge, but gives an exchange rate 1.5 cents better than the posted rate, he said.

Customers still need to determine, however, whether that bank’s exchange rate is better than their military bank’s rate.

Another strategy is to use credit cards, which tend to give the best exchange rates, for travel, Dougan said: “Just don’t forget to pay off your balance at the end of the month, or kiss those savings goodbye.”

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