Credit union officials at a community-development conference earlier this month agreed on one thing: The industry hasn't been living up to its federal mandate of serving "people of small means."
That was the industry's charge in the Federal Credit Union Act of 1934. But many speakers here highlighted the current reality: The average income of credit union members exceeds that of bank customers, and credit unions reject minorities' mortgage applications at a higher rate than those of whites.
"Clearly we see some need for improvement," said Cliff Rosenthal, executive director of the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions, as the conference - attended by 1,100 - got under way.
Frank Spencer, a director at Teachers Federal Credit Union in Farmingville, N.Y., agreed that the industry - particularly large institutions with an affluent membership base - needs to reach out to less- affluent groups.
"Large credit unions are usually not in minority communities," he said. "They need to bring people in."
Officials of institutions large and small said that the conference, sponsored by the National Credit Union Administration, was taking a step in that direction by stimulating discussion and bringing people together.
Navy Federal Credit Union provides assistance to several low-income credit unions in the Washington, D.C., area, and the conference gave it the opportunity to hear from more, said Tom Hughes, a director and former chief executive of the Vienna, Va., organization.
Small credit unions - many of whom fear being acquired by their bigger brethren - also appreciated the networking.
"We're looking for a mentor," said Charles I. Price, president of $345,000-asset St. John United Federal Credit Union, Buffalo.
The importance of reaching out to inner cities and other underserved communities is more than philosophical, some speakers said. If Congress believes the industry isn't serving underserved communities, they said, it ultimately might force credit unions to comply with the Community Reinvestment Act.
In fact, Mr. Rosenthal predicted Congress would act.
"In the next 90 days there'll be legislation introduced to apply CRA to credit unions with $50 million" or more in assets, Mr. Rosenthal said.
Mr. Rosenthal said community groups are pressing Congress to introduce a bill - with the rationale that credit unions would be able to comply with the newly streamlined law.
Former Maryland Rep. Kweisi Mfume, addressing the community development conference, said Congress is off track in investigating alleged improprieties surrounding the gathering.
The House Banking general oversight and investigations subcommittee has questioned whether the NCUA had the authority to sponsor the conference and criticized the agency for using examiners to promote it.
Mr. Mfume, who was the subcommittee's ranking Democrat before becoming chief executive of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People earlier this year, said the agency's conduct was above-board and not politically motivated.
Mr. Mfume said he was going to tell the panel's current chairman, Alabama Republican Spencer Bachus, that there is nothing to investigate.
"He is off the mark, and I'm going to call him and let him know he's off the mark," Mr. Mfume said.