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<p>WASHINGTON – Treasury Department should decide by May 15 whether 39 credit unions and credit union leagues in 13 states will receive U.S. government grants to introduce people without bank accounts to credit union services, according to the National Credit Union Foundation (NCUF). Acting as an umbrella organization for the credit unions, the National Credit Union Foundation applied for grant money that has been set aside under the so-called First Accounts program. The Treasury Department established the First Accounts program to help local groups and financial institutions get so-called unbanked people to open bank accounts or become credit union members. The federal government encourages lower income people to open bank and credit union accounts both for their own good and to make it more cost efficient to serve them when they enter federal support and education programs, according to the Treasury Department. At first blush it seems surprising that relatively few credit unions across the country applied to take part in the program and Gary Officer, executive director of the NCUF, admitted he initially found the low credit union participation “disappointing.” But Bill Crawley, Director of Programs and Grants for the NCUF, said the numbers were good considering a number of different constraints on this year’s application process. Probably the biggest one was timing, Crawley said. Because the NCUF found out about the program relatively late, from CUNA, word did not get out about the 14-plus page application until about the time of CUNA’s GAC in late February. This gave credit unions about three weeks to get their applications together to make the March 20 deadline, he pointed out. Crawley also noted that many credit unions likely found the application “daunting.” “It was a substantial application and this is the first year of the program so many of the questions were very open-ended,” he said. Applying to the first year of a program is always difficult because applicants cannot look to applications from former years for guidance on how to fill out the paperwork, Crawley explained. Also, many open ended questions meant that a credit union had to almost have a program in place already, that would be suitable to expand, in order to have something it could fairly quickly add to the application. Many of the 39 credit unions applying already had applications in the works individually before they heard about the umbrella application, he said. The 39 credit unions and credit union leagues did apply, however, and if the Treasury Department agrees, two of the applicants will see significant programs designed to help introduce credit union services to more people. Based in East Lansing, Michigan the $67 million Financial Health Credit Union has applied for over $150,000 for a two-year program to help it offer credit union services to disabled people in their field of membership, an opportunity that grew out of a previous program, Adeline Metzler, a vice president with the credit union, said. Financial Health already had a relationship with United Cerebral Palsy (UCP) of Michigan through a loan program the organization ran with the help of the credit union, Metzler explained. Under that program UCP loaned money to disabled people to buy the technological innovations that dramatically improve the quality of life of many disabled men and women. Financial Health helped by letting UCP deposit loan money with the credit union and by underwriting the loans on behalf of the organization. “So we already had a relationship with these folks and we knew there were men and women in our field of membership who were disabled.” The relationship was crucial, Metzler said, because Financial Health is not a community charter credit union and cannot offer its services broadly in the area. If the Treasury Department approves the application, Financial Health will travel to the select employment groups where it knows many disabled people work and make presentations about the credit union services, offering to sign up people for credit union membership. Metzler agreed with Crawley that the application had been “challenging” to put together, even though she had previous experience with writing grant applications. The New York Credit Union Foundation and five New York credit unions were among those who had heard about the First Accounts program months before the National Credit Union Foundation offered to serve as an umbrella organization for all the credit unions applying, according to Frank Kerbein, executive director of the New York Credit Union Foundation. In the New York case the credit union foundation had heard about the opportunity through New York’s Cooperative Extension Service, its proposed partner in the program. According to Kerbein, if the application is approved the five credit unions will craft education presentations about credit union services that the credit unions and cooperative extension agents will deliver to unbanked people who are already extension agency clients. The New York League has asked for $800,000 to fund the program that, Kerbein pointed out, will seek to serve a large state. Officially, the First Accounts program lasts only this year, but there is an expectation that if results are strong Congress will fund it again. “But nothing is guaranteed,” Crawley said.</p>

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