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Community Perspective

The credit union advantage of keeping your money local

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"Democracy is not a spectator sport.” Indeed, it is a civic responsibility.

There are many people trying to improve our local economy. Here is one thing we can all do: Keep our money locally. Divest from mega-banks, and invest and borrow with local financial institutions. And the corollary: Participate in determining what that local financial institution does.

If I need a loan or other financial services, I can become a member-owner and get good rates from a local credit union at which I participate in the annual meeting and talk any time with members of the board of directors. This, rather than using the financial services of for-profit Mega-Bank X which has corporate headquarters Outside and gives its profits to distant shareholders and CEOs rather than to its account holders, workers and community.

In 1960, local school teachers had bills to pay before their first paychecks arrived and the existing banks made it difficult and expensive to borrow. So they pooled their meagre cash to start Interior Alaska’s oldest credit union, now called Spirit of Alaska Federal Credit Union.

They decided on the cooperative credit union model because it is owned by and answers to its membership and reinvests any extra proceeds in its members and locally as decided by members, and does not send any money to pay distant shareholders. For many years this credit union paid the best dividends (interest) around, and has helped many families get and stay on solid footing.

At its annual meetings, members democratically elect and work with the volunteer board of directors to determine such things as what community programs to support versus getting a very slightly higher dividend.

In the case of Spirit of Alaska Federal Credit Union, we members have indeed voted at annual meetings about such things, and the members voted that our credit union should support a variety of community events and organizations; financial education for members, teachers and community; a community billboard; support for local health-related efforts, sports and other activities, food pantry, Solarize Fairbanks, and others.

If you are a member, join the Spirit of Alaska Federal Credit Union annual meeting 6:30-8:30 p.m. Thursday, May 6. A link at SpiritofAK.com gives advice about testing and accessing the connection well ahead of time, and for member questions or new business. Very unfortunately, this is exactly the same time as the annual member meeting of our area’s largest cooperative business, Golden Valley Electric Association, www.gvea.com/annual-meeting.

If your family has accounts with both, how about one or more participating in each meeting? To keep our cooperatives and other institutions operating democratically requires participation. Bring your questions, concerns, and ideas. Join the meeting this week.

If you are a member of another local financial institution, find out how to get involved.

And, finally, at the state level, the proposed Alaska Energy Independence Fund (”Green Bank”), recently introduced in the Alaska Legislature as SB 123 and HB 170, may help local financial institutions improve local lending for economic activity that will help the state move away from economic dependence on fossil fuels.

However, it needs to include greater checks and balances on AIDEA to ensure transparent public process and oversight, geographic and demographic diversity, and true benefit to all Alaskans and our environment for future generations.

There is still time to comment on these bills. Please reach out to your state senators and representatives and consider testifying. You can sign up for bill tracking via links at the bottom of the akleg.gov page or by texting the bill number (SB 123 or HB 170) to 559-245-2529 to get text alerts.

Heather Koponen is a Fairbanks resident.

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