Back to normal not always a good thing
Exactly one year has passed since those horrific events on September 11th that many people, from the President of the United States on down, said would change this country forever. At the same time, Mayor Rudy Giuliani and many others pleaded with all New Yorkers to try and return their lives to normal as quickly as humanly possible. Taken together, the two admonitions seem to be somewhat contradictory. Returning to normal in a country changed forever is a tall order. Among the many "changed forever" examples resulting from the tragedy were these: It changed the way we fly. It changed our overall awareness of security, or the lack thereof. It changed the way we view large gatherings of Americans, as well as skyscrapers, bridges, national monuments, nuclear power plants, chemical and biological agents, dams, computer networks, and credit union facilities. It changed the way we conduct once routine financial transactions. It changed our view of the military and agencies charged with the responsibility for protecting Americans and for safeguarding American interests here and abroad. The 9/11 tragedy also altered dramatically the American outlook on heroism, leadership, priorities, personal safety, life, death, and family. In this space a year ago I wrote: ".all of this probably means that our credit union family must try harder to seek more ways to help as many Americans as possible." Throughout the past 12 months it has become obvious that credit unions did try harder. Those credit unions and credit union members directly affected by 9/11 were immediately helped with generosity and compassion in dozens of ways. Credit union foundation coffers filled up rapidly as those involved in any way with credit unions stepped forward with open wallets and purses to assist those in need. As the year wore on, credit unions collectively reached out to extend needed services to record numbers of underserved and low income individuals. In effect, credit unions did get back to normal by implementing new ways to serve existing members and by reaching out to millions of potential members. There are hundreds of examples during the past year of credit unions acting like credit unions are supposed to act. That all sounds too good to be true. It is. During the past year it became clear that many things in America didn't "change forever." Also, that not every instance of "getting back to normal" was necessarily positive. Crooks, robbers, abductors of children, and perpetrators of violent crime were conducting business as usual in no time. Record numbers of corporate titans and their accountants were caught with the goods as their houses of cards collapsed around them with the little guy taking the brunt of the fallout. The stock market took a nose dive. The country's deficit soared. Politicians abandoned their love-in attitude and went back on the partisan attack. The number of jobless and homeless increased. Personal bankruptcies went skyward as corrective legislation languished. Consumer confidence tanked. Banking industry lobbyists renewed their state and national attacks on credit unions with vigor. An emotional debate sprung up overnight regarding the words "under God" in the pledge of allegiance. A raging international debate emerged regarding what to do about the reining monarch of Iraq before he could orchestrate still another tragedy. Some things never change. In the credit union world it has long been normal for some credit union folks to criticize other credit unions. 9/11 didn't change that, despite a direct connection to the tragic events. A case in point is a large credit union that was very much in the center of things on 9/11. What it did following the tragedy to assist its members, many of them victims or on-the-scene firefighters and police officers, brought out some of the strongest criticism. Under never-before-seen tragic circumstances, NYC's Municipal Credit Union, located in a high-rise across from ground zero, trusted its nearly 300,000 members, deciding that the vast majority of them would be honest when withdrawing funds from ATMs while the record keeping function of the system was not functioning. It was a gutsy and timely decision that put members first. But about 4,000 members withdrew funds they didn't have which initially cost the credit union approximately $15 million. Although most of that staggering sum is expected to eventually be recovered, reaction to my column praising Municipal's action drew critical responses. I have since learned that the credit union board also voted to forgive loans to a number of firefighters and police officers without life insurance who lost their lives in the tragedy. To which I say bravo! An alleged (his name does not appear on the NCUA employee roster) NCUA examiner e-mailed me to tell me that my column praising the credit union's action "is full of %^&*&#@. The spin that it's a good thing to lose that much money is crazy. Those jokers should have lowered the daily limit to $100 and then they wouldn't be in the fix they're in. What a bunch of morons. You backing these guys up is nutty." A CU CEO had this to say: "Frankly, I couldn't disagree with your conclusions more. Their decision.was totally irresponsible and the cost of this poor judgment should be borne by the credit union and not by the rest of us via bond claims or some misguided federal assistance. To satisfy this poor management in the name of service during a disaster is ludicrous." In many obvious ways America has changed forever. In even more ways things have returned to normal. But in the spirit of credit unions and in light of 9/11, I naively hoped that credit union people would see what Municipal Credit Union did as the normal way for a credit union to act under the worst possible scenario directly affecting its members. As I said in that column 12 months ago, if nothing else, 9/11 should teach credit unions the importance of keeping things in perspective. Has it? Comments? Call 1-800-345-9936, Ext. 15, or Fax 561-683-8514, or E-mail email@example.com.