Berkeleyans move their money, and small banks benefit

Gary Bell, CEO of Cooperative Federal Credit Union in Berkeley. Photo: Judith Scherr

By Judith Scherr

On Friday at noon, Mark Coplan waited patiently for his turn to open an account at the Cooperative Center Federal Credit Union on Ashby Avenue. Thirty-eight people did the same on Saturday which was “Move Your Money Day”, also known as “Bank Transfer Day”, a concept promoted by the Occupy Wall Street Movement, MoveOn.org and other organizations.

The goal is to get people to transfer their money from large institutions to local banks or credit unions. “Invest in Main Street, Not Wall Street,” is their slogan.

“I want to be able to switch my account from Wells Fargo tomorrow,” said Coplan, spokesperson for the Berkeley Unified School District, but speaking for himself this time. Coplan, who has banked with Wells Fargo since 1984, said pressure on the big banks has already succeeded. Bank of America recently U-turned on plans to charge customers $5 a month in order to use their debit cards. “That’s a direct result of the Occupy Wall Street Movement,” Coplan said.


By closing time on Saturday, Gary Bell, CEO of Cooperative Federal Credit Union, was elated. “Good people are coming back home to the credit union,” he said. “Today a significant message was sent to the banks about the way they handle finances.”

The push to get people to transfer funds began some months before the advent of Occupy Wall Street. The CCFCU has seen a growing number of new accounts over the past few months, according to Marketing Manager Debbie Crowson, who compared October 2010, where there were 106 new accounts to October 2011, with 316 new accounts.

Over at family-owned Mechanics Bank, they’ve had more than a three-fold increase in deposits over the past couple of months, and a ten-fold increase since the beginning of November, said Senior Vice President Rauly Butler on Friday. “We’re slammed,” he said. “People are coming in droves.”

CCFCU Business Lending Manager Byron Phillips pointed out the differences between the credit union and the big banks. The credit union is a not-for-profit, member-owned bank, controlled by an unpaid board of directors that is elected by members. “We don’t answer to shareholders,” Phillips said. “We’re responsible to members and their needs… and we don’t have big fat paychecks and bonuses.”

Credit unions reinvest in the community, and have a more flexible loan policy, Phillips said. They offer small business loans of less than $1 million, generally around $300,000, for equipment or tenant improvements. Borrowers’ credit scores can be lower for loans at the CCFCU than at large banks. This works to the advantage of minority-owned businesses, he said.

According to the Move Your Money Project website, “Smaller banks do disproportionately more small business lending than the big banks. Small businesses, in turn, are the main engine of job growth, accounting for 65% of new jobs.” (Another source of information is Move our Money USA.)

James Garrett, president of the CCFU board of directors, said the credit union supports financial literacy. For example, they sponsor workshops for homeowners in crisis and they have a consultant who works with people on small-business loans.

“This is a place where you can talk to the CEO if you have a problem,” Garrett said. “We provide an alternative to corporate institutions.”

Two years ago, Bonnie Peterson of West Berkeley took her money out of Bank of America where she’d been banking for 35 years. She told Berkeleyside that bailing out the big banks was “unconscionable.” She moved her money to Mechanics Bank, which she characterized as “a home grown community bank.”

Butler, of the 106-year-old Mechanics Bank, said Mechanics’ three Berkeley branches were fully staffed and open beyond the normal 2 p.m. closing time on Saturday to take care of people transferring their accounts.

Bank of America thinks people should keep their money there. “Bank of America continues to be a great place for customers to manage their everyday finances and achieve their savings goals,” Colleen Haggerty, Bank of America spokesperson, said in an e-mail. “We offer customers more choice and convenience, including industry-leading fraud protection, access to thousands of banking centers and ATMs, and the best online and mobile banking, which allow customers to bank on their terms.”

Mark Coplan has his own grievance with Bank of America. He’s been on disability leave for a couple of months and, instead of getting checks from the state, he gets funds that the state deposits in Bank of America, which issues him a debit card. “Bank of America is profiting,” he said as he took his turn to open his new account.

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