Credit unions have changed.

Gone are the days when management was volunteer and largely unsophisticated.

I remember meeting the head of the Chicago Parks credit union, whom I asked, "How did you get to run the credit union?"

"I was tired of using the 'spear' " he replied. This was the pole used to pick up trash. "In summer it was too hot and in winter too cold. So I decided to run the credit union."

Loans were small -- mostly $500 to $15,000 signature loans -- and defaults were few because lenders worked side by side with borrowers.

But times have changed. Management is professional, with many CEOs coming from banking. And most feel that their mission is to win over commercial banks' business.

The law that Congress passed to reaffirm credit union powers -- after the Supreme Court had limited them -- runs 61 pages, and it sharply emphasizes the institutions' political clout.

Recently I addressed a CEO summit of the Florida and Pennsylvania credit union leagues. I found I was very unpopular for saying that credit unions are an "industry" rather than a "movement."

In my view, which I still hold despite these people's hospitality, a credit union has two choices: It can remain an organization for a group with a common bond, in which case it deserves its exemption from income taxes, but if it wants to expand its membership, it should be subject to the same taxes that banks and thrifts pay. Make up your minds.

"No way," they said. Credit unions are special and deserve to remain in special tax circumstances despite having expanded rapidly.

One CEO said his credit union serves the employees, relatives, and retirees of 26 companies in Pennsylvania and runs more than 20 ATMs in addition to numerous branches.

One CEO at the summit meeting admitted that the tax advantage plays a large role in his ability to pay higher rates and charge less for loans than competing banks do. Yet like the others, he felt that this was fair because of his mission -- to "serve the public."

They even disagreed when I criticized state laws that forbid banks with ATMs from charging nondepositors a fee. These machines are private property, I argued, not public facilities.

"Whoa " they said. "Banks have so many more than we do, and when they set them up, we decided there was no reason for us to set them up too.''

Happily for me, the credit unions that had invested in their own ATMs did not take the same attitude.

They had expected that if they wanted to offer ATM convenience, someone would have to pay for it. But these CEOs were in the minority.

Many did feel, however, that in time they would lose the battle over restrictions on ATM fees.

They all did agree that they have more in common with community banks than big banks. And I found there is a major rift between large and small credit unions, similar to the one between large and small banks, with a larger often trying to swallow up a smaller's accounts.

I also learned that some larger credit unions are beginning to staff up to make the small-business loans that many big banks are now shunning.

Some CEOs worry that such lending would force Congress to rethink the tax-exemption issue. But most still feel that credit unions' status as a "movement," in addition to their political clout and large membership, will guarantee the tax break.

But outsiders like myself find it harder and harder to differentiate between them and community banks.

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