MARKS, Miss. – Two small Mississippi credit unions have found that their members, like the Mississippi Delta region they live in, have both benefited and suffered as the region has adapted to the arrival and growth of legal, organized, gambling that has taken place in recent years. According to the CEOs of the institutions, the arrival of the casinos in the nearby community of Tunica, Mississippi has meant more regular paychecks for some members and some financial problems for others. “It’s been about eight or nine years since the state said casinos could come in to Tunica” and other nearby Delta communities, said Robert Jackson, CEO of the $5.2 million Quitman Tri-County Federal Credit Union. The casinos are not part of the relatively recent explosion in organized gaming on Indian reservations, Jackson said, but arrived in Delta towns after the state authorized organized gambling, which proponents call “gaming,” along the waterways in the river-crossed state. Now Jackson estimates that a fifth of the community credit union’s 3,500 members work in one of Tunica’s eight casinos and all have their paychecks deposited electronically. That gives the credit union a regular cash flow and helps its members build savings since a percentage of their paychecks can be directed into savings accounts automatically. The down side of the casino’s arrival was an increase in the number of bankruptcies among credit union members – which Jackson said peaked in the years immediately after the casinos opened but which have ebbed since – and a difficulty convincing members that there really isn’t anything like “easy money.” Jackson said it was “rough” for the small institution in the wake of the casino’s opening when, in 1996, the credit union closed its books for the year under $100 dollars in the black after two of its members declared bankruptcy in the wake of gambling debts. The credit union rebounded in the next year and closed its books $64,000 ahead, and Jackson said it has never been as bad since. He explained, however, that the bankruptcy danger lurks always on the edge of the credit union’s business. Jackson didn’t blame the credit union’s members or even the casinos for the rise in bankruptcies and their ongoing threat. Instead Jackson blamed lawyers which, he said, moved in aggressively after the casinos opened, advertising bankruptcy widely and taking advantage of the regions liberal bankruptcy court. In most of the cases, he said, the bankruptcy the lawyers pressed was not in the best interest of the credit union member and often appeared inexplicable. He cited a recent case where a member was contemplating bankruptcy while owing the credit union $600 and while owing little to anyone else. “The bankruptcy lawyer was going to charge the member $1,500 for the bankruptcy,” Jackson exclaimed, “so how does she come out ahead?” Jackson said the member had not approached the credit union for consultation or education prior to visiting the lawyer. Jackson said the lawyers pressing bankruptcy had ways of advertising that resonated well with the communities in Marks and Tunica. “One thing we have down here is about a quadrillion churches,” Jackson said, “and most of those give these hand fans out to their members. Those hand fans are great advertising for the lawyers. All over the place you see these fans with `easy bankruptcy’ printed on them in big black letters. Maybe we should use that approach to push the credit union,” he said, chuckling softly. Still, on balance, the overall impression is that the gambling has been good for the credit union members and the credit union, both in Jackson’s institution and the even smaller, and younger, Phillips County Self Help Federal Credit Union. Phillips County is a $513,000 credit union with 940 members in nearby Helana, Arkansas, another Delta community. Both institutions have appreciated the regular paychecks the casinos have enabled their members to bring in paychecks that, Jackson pointed out, are there week in and week out no matter what other problems they bring. [email protected]

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