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<p>There are a growing number of credit union-related events that have recently taken place that deserve comment. Here’s a potpourri look at some of them: From news reports (I wasn’t actually there), it appears that the so-called Great Debate in California between CUNA’s economist Bill Hampel and ABA’s economist Keith Leggett, didn’t live up to its advance billing. Where were the fireworks? Mostly to blame were unearned politeness and the stilted format which prevented spontaneous interchanges. Giving each combatant eight minutes to speak uninterrupted, followed by a four minute time slot to talk back, does not make for a spirited exchange. Might it not have been more effective to immediately jump on the banking industry spokesperson every time he uttered a falsehood? Like constantly and on purpose referring to CU members as customers. Or, when he suggests striking a bargain in which credit unions could willingly give up their tax-exempt status in return for the bankers getting off their collective backs? As soon as the blasphemy left his lips, someone should have said “go to (rhymes with bell),” and told the ABA what its official role is in regard to credit unions. None! Oh well, “A” for effort! At first glance, it looks like the OTS (Office of Thrift Supervision) should be lauded for attempting to reverse the deficit it has chalked up since 1998 by cutting 20% of its staff. But in looking closer, has OTS gone far enough? By its own count, the agency has 1,167 employees who oversee 1,068 thrifts. That comes out to more than one OTS staffer per institution supervised. In contrast, NCUA has 993 employees (with a projected further reduction this year of 33), who handle both regulation and insurance supervision for 9,984 credit unions. That comes out to less than one NCUA staffer for every ten credit unions. After 50 years in existence, Lackland FCU in San Antonio is now Air Force FCU. Unlike many of the CU’s defense credit union colleagues which have shed their military monikers and switched to a community charter, Lackland is acknowledging that they serve the US Air Force. So now there’s a Navy Federal and an Air Force Federal. Can Army Federal, Marine Federal, and Coast Guard Federal be far behind? And even further down the line, which credit unions will be the first in their state to follow the lead of Alaska USA and Hawaii USA? Florida USA has a nice ring to it. Is it just me or does it sound ludicrous for an $8.2 million credit union with less than 2,000 members to be applying for a geographical expansion that encompasses 510,000 potential members? I hate to sound like a banker, but I’d love to see a business plan that shows how such a small credit union can bite off that much real estate and serve the financial needs of over a half million people. Why do some involved with credit unions continue to shoot themselves in the foot? A Midwest CU uses an outside publicity firm that includes this line with every news release: “ABC Credit Union is open to the public.” A CU trade group is urging credit unions to learn the secrets of “customer service” by attending an institute for credit unions it is sponsoring entitled “Outstanding Customer Service.” Also, a large Eastern credit union has unveiled a new logo that includes this tag line: “Banking among friends.” The SBA (Small Business Administration) is being urged to include more than community credit unions because, “credit unions without a community charter still have a large enough FOM and should be considered as serving the public.” With the passing of former NCUA chief Austin Montgomery recently, I was reminded how quickly the credit union industry relegates former leaders to the back burner, never to be heard from again. When is the last time NCUA or anyone else has tapped into the brainpower and wealth of experience of previous NCUA Board Chairmen? Ditto former chief elected officers of national and state CU trade groups? Many of these discarded folks have told me they still have a brain, are still interested, and feel they have something to contribute. Not only are they completely ignored, but most are taken off every mailing list even before the door slams shut as they make their final exit. Meanwhile, the FDIC has identified at least seven former FDIC heads who are still alive and kicking and available to provide counsel to the current regime. In a recent blurb, the American Banker dubbed this prestigious group as the “League of Former FDIC Chairmen.” Something similar might be worth a try for credit unions. Speaking of leaders, what kind of leaders threaten their friends? Soon-to-be-retired Senator Phil Gramm (R-Texas) and Banking Committee Chairman Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.) used the hearings for new NCUA Board Members JoAnn Johnson and Deborah Matz as a bully pulpit to issue stern warnings to credit unions. Central to their lectures, they threatened to take away the credit union tax-exemption if credit unions don’t act like they feel CUs should behave. Their rhetoric sounded much like the threats emanating from the banking industry lobbyists. But from friends? Can they carry out those threats? No, but they could give credit unions a lot of headaches for a time. Sarbanes asked if CUs are no different from banks, why should they enjoy a different tax treatment and regulatory structure? If he really doesn’t know the difference, credit union lobbyists have their work cut out for them. If he really does know, the task may be impossible. Gramm preached that the two board members are not there to represent credit unions, but the interests of working men and women of the United States. You are dead wrong Senator, and 80 million CU members will agree with me. And so it goes in the always interesting world of credit unions. Comments? Call 1-800-345-9936, Ext. 15, or Fax 561-683-8514, or E-mail [email protected]</p>

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Peter Westerman

Credit Union Times

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