As the banking industry continues its push to strip away the credit union tax-exemption, and hearings are being held on Capitol Hill to delve into whether the philosophy behind the exemption still holds water, it’s a shame that credit unions’ incredible spirit of people helping people isn’t being acknowledged. Credit unions deserve a pat on the back for how they’ve responded to the series of disasters that have plagued the nation. Beginning with last year’s hurricanes, the industry has contributed millions of dollars for hurricane relief. Since Aug. 29 of this year, after Rita devastated the Gulf Coast, the National Credit Union Foundation has raised $2.5 million. What I’m so impressed with is how relentless the industry has been. Efforts are ongoing. Credit unions aren’t simply setting up accounts for members to donate for hurricane relief, they’re holding creative fundraisers; they’re matching member-donated funds; they’re allowing employees to contribute vacation days; they’re donating vehicles, clothes and other vital supplies; they’re traveling across state lines to help members; and on and on. This is no flash in the pan effort, it’s a conscious, continuous relief plan to ensure those affected by hurricanes can get back on their feet. The manner in which credit unions have helped each other has also been awe-inspiring. They are opening their doors and offering office space and computer systems to neighboring credit unions that were damaged by the storm. Credit unions that were fortunate enough to go relatively unscathed by the hurricanes are not trying to get a competitive edge by allowing their neighboring credit unions to flounder, they want to make sure all members are served. Yes, I’ll say it, this will not happen to this extent in the banking industry, no way, no how. It’s just not the way that industry is. For years I’ve heard from vendors who are surprised by how willing credit unions are to share their success stories with each other. They don’t fear giving away what’s worked for them, whether it be a new product or a change in operations. Banks just will not do this, but then again banks need to make profits for shareholders, credit unions do not. Let’s take a look at just one CU that has been dramatically impacted by the hurricanes, GTE FCU in Tampa, Florida. GTE has three branches in New Orleans and one in the St. Charles Parish, all which were damaged by Rita, with one possibly on its way to being demolished. In all, 27 GTE FCU employees had their lives changed on some level. Some lost all their worldly possessions. GTE has embraced these employees, with about a dozen being given jobs in GTE’s Tampa offices. Several other employees have committed to stay in New Orleans and work in the branches once their reopened, which two have already done. GTE employees who were not touched by Rita have stepped up by donating 1,572 hours of their own vacation time so affected employees can remain on the payroll and keep getting benefits. It’s one thing to donate money, but donating your hard-earned vacation time is truly a personal sacrifice. GTE is not only dealing with its own hurricane-related problems, it’s helping other credit unions. It has donated $238,000 to hurricane relief. Half of that was raised by employees and members and the other half was matching funds donated by its charitable foundation. GTE has suspended ATM fees, shared branching fees, share draft fees, etc. It’s granted 137 short-term, low-interest loans to members. It’s held bake sales, dress down days, and a number of other special events to raise money for relief. The CU’s top marketing person told me the employees who have relocated to the Tampa offices have been treated so phenomenally, they’re now actually asking to be treated as “normal” employees. They’ve been given clothes, housing assistance, their children have been placed in schools – they’ve been provided with all the other basic necessities needed to start a new life in a new place. GTE also benefited from vendor giving. PSCU Financial and Members Gateway each donated $25,000 to help GTE employees. But talking with GTE’s leaders, they are quick to point out all the good done by the leagues in the Southeast. The Florida League worked with the NCUF and other leagues to get $500 checks out to credit union employees in rapid fashion, while state and federal agencies were tying them up in red tape. The leagues worked to make the adopt-a-credit union program successful. GTE for example adopted Noda FCU out of New Orleans and just one of its acts was to pay that CU’s $31,000 fee to join the shared branching network, which has proven a lifesaver for it to maintain member service. GTE has received help and given help. Think about this. GTE is just one example. Thousands of other CUs, vendors, leagues, and others have given all they can. Whether it be a small credit union giving whatever it could, or a large credit union donating hundreds of thousands, the effort from top to bottom should be a model for other industries and deserves the respect of everyone. The industry’s relief efforts have affected me. I’ve never prescribed to the notion that credit unions can truly change members’ lives. Credit unions provide financial services and if they’re doing it in a cost-effective manner for the member, they are certainly helping members better their financial situation, but that’s not life changing. This outpouring of hurricane support has shown credit unions truly can change lives. Credit unions are a breed all their own and it’s a shame the industry has to spend millions battling a banking lobby that unfortunately appears to be getting some traction in Congress. Lawmakers need to wake up and look at what’s good for their constituents. If they do that, the credit union industry will never be taxed. (See pages 20-21 for latest CU hurricane efforts.) -Comments? E-mail [email protected]

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