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Loretta Moesta, president of OUR FCU here, believes small credit unions can expect to become extinct if they continue to behave like dinosaurs.

In the case of the $4.2-million OUR FCU, it celebrates it asset size, but also endeavors to educate everyone about its operation, embrace the Latino community, and just in case, pray a lot.

"If taxation goes into effect it will hurt the entire movement, but will kill the small ones," observed Moesta. "We embrace all aspects of community development and are actively pursuing the Latino community. We are working with community partners who have economic development as their mission," she said.

The credit union is designated as a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI). It is also struggling to regain its feet after having been operating under conservatorship by NCUA following an embezzlment.

Moesta, who defines a credit union as small if under $5 million in assets and as successful if more than $10 million, said her credit union's goal is to reach that $10 million threshold. At that point, she said, assets will create more assets. "We can't have a website, we need more employees and we need a better share ratio. The micro CU's are all fighting the same battle," she said.

It is getting assistance in that battle.

"We get a lot of help; non-member deposits (on which it pays) below market rates. We are helped by other credit unions," she said. Included in that help was money donated so that Moesta and her husband could travel to the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions (NFCDCU) meeting in New Orleans, where she was honored for her work with the Annie Vamper Award. She noted the credit union also gets tech support, advice and information from larger CU's.

Yet, she observed, OUR FCU often doesn't know what to ask for, and the large credit unions don't know what to offer.

The CEO job infringes on her family in a difficult way.

"It's hard not to be approached on my own time by people who want to pay their loans or ask questions," she said.

"You just can't get away from it, because everyone knows us. The same thing happens to our employees; members will ask them questions in the grocery store. Members don't appreciate the line between business and personal. They are so comfortable they feel like friends and just ask any questions."

Living At Work

How much do work and personal life intertwine? Until 1999, Moesta and her husband lived in an apartment above the credit union. "I was often working when I supposed to be sleeping," she said. "Now I work 7 to 5 Monday to Friday and some hours on the weekend. At night I formulate and plan. I am always thinking about the credit union, filing away ideas for later use."

A big problem for Moesta is the lack of knowledge about just what operating a credit union with a low-income designation means. "Nobody understands it-regulators, members, credit unions don't understand it," she said. "You talk abut it and everyone says, 'Wow, how do you deal with it?"

She said the credit union has tried to "educate, educate, and educate" all of those constituencies, along with elected officials. But it still finds itself under the bushel basket. "We have no marketing; we never get to celebrate. We get no PR," she said.

Moesta came into the job with a nontraditional background. A theater major in college ("I was hoodwinked into this job"), she recalled that when she opened her account with the credit union she indicated she would also like to volunteer. The credit union responded by asking if she would help it collect on its 18% delinquencies.

An embezzlement just prior to her joining the credit union turned the volunteering into something of a full-time job, and she was asked by the board to take over as manager.

"NCUA had us in conservationship and the case officer approached and said we need a manager and I said, 'Yes. you do,' " she recalled. "The case officer said 'We need you,' and I said I was not qualified in any way and said 'no.' He asked me to take a walk. A long hot walk, and I still said no. Then the board said 'let's take a walk.' I said 'I think I am not qualified.' When I came back my husband was there. They'd called him, and he asked me to go for a walk. I went for a walk with him. I told him I had no education, no training, I was not the right person. My husband asked what would happen if I didn't do it and I said the credit union would go away. He said I should do it and I gave in. Today I don't regret it; last week I did."

When asked if it is a good career, Moesta replied, "It depends on the day you ask the question. If you asked my husband he'd say 'no, it's a great volunteer position.' I've done some of my most gratifying things and had my lowest lows here. Something must be good or I wouldn't be here. The staff could go somewhere and make much more money. It takes a special kind of dedication to work in this environment. They have the option to learn all that goes into a credit union. There are no opportunities for advancement, just expansion."

Nevertheless, Moesta has had an opportunity to advance her own education.

"Just this summer I graduated from the CUNA Management School. It really helped me understand what I was doing, what to plan for, the ramifications, all of it," she said. "For every good credit union out there, there is an incredible support team and they should really be thanked for making it possible. I didn't know how physically hard the job was, but it's so rewarding when you pull someone from the jaws of a 35% loan, every time you see someone who was struggling who now has a thriving business, seeing them learn from the financial plans."

Help From Regulators

Moesta said that OUR Federal Credit Union has been very fortunate to have examiners who have been understanding. "The Federation has done an admirable job in lobbying on our behalf. Not all credit unions have the luxury of having the regulators we've had," she said.

The board, too, she said, has a "better understanding now that we've been through hell and back. They understand we have to be a credit union first and foremost and put community development in a partnership. It has to work in conjunction."

Moesta acknowledged the credit unions rates are not as competitive in the market as they might be, but are significantly more attractive than the usurious APRs charged by many of the predatory lenders in the community is serves.

Other than growth, Moesta has no plans to change. She says the credit union is happy in its niche. She said, "The last thing this community needs is another credit union," she said. "The first is the survival of this community development CU."

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