Community First Flexes Its Muscles in Courthouse and at Ballot Box
Successfully suing the Internal Revenue Service over the unrelated business income tax and serving as a test case for the credit union movement might be enough political activity to last any financial institution for several years.
That's not the case with Appleton, Wis.-based Community First Credit Union.
The activities of the $1.3 billion credit union, which has branches throughout a 13-county area in Northeast Wisconsin is why it has been awarded the 2010 Credit Union Times Trailblazer Award for Outstanding Political Action.
Three years ago when the credit union movement was looking for a credit union to become a test case to challenge what it saw as an unfair tax against state-chartered credit unions, Community First volunteered.
"We thought we were right and thought it was important to make the case," Community First Credit Union President/CEO Cathie Tierney recalled. "The tax was unfair and it was also important for us to stand up for all credit unions, especially state-chartered credit unions."
Community First's staff worked with the industrywide UBIT steering committee to plot legal strategy that would enable the credit union to win back the $54,604 it had paid in UBIT on sales of three financial products: credit life insurance, credit disability insurance and guaranteed auto protection insurance. The credit union maintained that those are "substantially related" to its tax-exempt mission.
It filed the lawsuit on Jan. 15, 2008, and the case went to trial in May 2009. The proceedings lasted less than a week, and an eight-member jury ruled in Community First's favor.
The IRS declined to appeal, although the credit union still hasn't received its refund.
As a result of the victory, Tierney and Community First became the toast of the credit union movement.
CUNA gave Tierney its Trailblazer Award last June. During the presentation, CUNA President/CEO Dan Mica teased her that while the credit union's efforts were of great help to the credit union movement, taking on the IRS might not have been a strategy that most business strategists would have advised her to take.
She also received the Pierre Jay Award from NASCUS.
While Community First's case was been winding its way through the courts, its senior executive team felt it needed to increase its presence in other areas.
"As our assets have grown to almost $2 billion, we needed to do more to let people in government know about credit unions, and also let our employees become more informed," Tierney said.
To accomplish that Tierney created a new position-senior vice president for government and community relations-and hired former Community First executive Rick Sense to fill the spot. Sense, who had been a political junkie since college, had left the credit union to take an executive post at a regional office at Goodwill Industries, where he successfully lobbied to give the organization tax-exempt status.
Sense, who described himself as "having a passion for politics and credit unions," said the goal of his work is to have an ongoing dialogue with policymakers.
"It's not just about talking at election time or when issues come up but the overall relationship. And we want to give elected officials a chance to better understand what we are about," he said.
To accomplish this, Sense set up monthly brown bag lunches for credit union employees and volunteers to hear from their elected officials. At each meeting, Sense starts out by giving an overview of the political scene and highlighting issues that are important to credit unions. Then the guest speaker makes a presentation and asks questions.
Sense said the sessions are bipartisan, and they are resolute about alternating between Democratic and Republican guests. He jokes that they represent the "Credit Union Movement Party."
The sessions attract between 25 and 50 guests, including people from area credit unions.
Wisconsin Credit Union League Vice President-Government Affairs Tom Liebe contends that the lunches have had an impact on the broader credit union movement in Wisconsin.
"Importantly, the depth and breadth of participation by credit union staff members in the Fox Valley region has increased perceptibly. This has yielded stronger participation in statewide advocacy events and grassroots action appeals as a result of Community First's efforts," Liebe wrote in a letter endorsing the credit union's CU Times Trailblazer Award.
Sense reported on the program as a "best practice," during the league's 2009 annual convention, and Liebe wrote that it is a "best practice that should be shared beyond the borders of our state as well."
Assembly Majority Leader Thomas Nelson (D) wrote that the discussions at the brown-bag events are "extremely useful for vetting new policy proposals and gauging how the local economy is faring."
U.S. Rep. Thomas Petri (R-Wis.), who represents part of Northeast Wisconsin in Congress, has spoken at a lunch as well. Sense said the lunch, and the regular contact that senior executives of Community First have with him, recently resulted in Petri becoming a co-sponsor of legislation that would raise the cap on member business loans from 12.25% of assets to 25%.
In addition, Community First regularly informs employees and volunteers about political events and fundraising receptions and encourages them to become involved.
"We don't want political involvement to be just for the senior management team. Our approach levels the playing field and everybody can make an impact," Tierney said.
In their discussions with lawmakers, they focus on the unintended consequences of legislation.
"We point out that there are lots of things that may sound good-such as limits on overdrafts-that may result in people not having access to a service they want," Tierney noted.
She said that the credit union has thought about starting a political action committee but hasn't form one, nor has it ever hosted a political fundraising event on premises.
But individual staff members have made contributions. Since 1996, Tierney has contributed $3,000 to federal candidates, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
On the state level, she served on the Governor's Task Force on Financial Literacy, which worked with the Department of Public Instruction to develop comprehensive state standards for teaching students at different levels about personal finance.
Sense has raised the credit union's profile by his own political involvement.
During the 2008 campaign, he volunteered in the campaign of former Assembly Speaker John Gard, the GOP nominee for Congress from the 8th District.
Gard, who had run unsuccessfully for the seat in 2006, lost again to Rep. Steve Kagen (D-Wis.).
But Sense enjoyed the experience and said it is important for credit unions to get involved in politics at the grassroots level.
"Government works best if there is more involvement from people who are outside the political system, especially if we can tell our story and talk about what we do," he said.