BEDFORD-STUYVESANT — A Bed-Stuy credit union that has operated for almost 50 years using only pencil and paper could finally get a digital upgrade, thanks to a group of nonprofit volunteers.
The Good Counsel Federal Credit Union, located in the Our Lady of Good Counsel rectory at 915 Putnam Ave., is a Brooklyn credit union run by Panamanian immigrant Roy Henry, 76, where transactions are made through slips and passbooks, with each transaction recorded in a 47-year-old ledger that's about six inches thick.
Henry joined the largely low-income credit union when it began in the 1960s at a time when Bed-Stuy residents struggled to find good credit in the neighborhood, he said.
"I was fascinated by the idea of people owning their own group to control their own funds," Henry said. "Unemployment was very high and people couldn't get credit in Bed-Stuy."
But low-income credit union advocates say that institutions like Henry's are in danger of closure due to government regulation. Now one of those advocates, the Concourse Fund, has launched an online campaign through the fundraising website Indiegogo to get Henry a much-needed upgrade.
Concourse works with small financial institutions in to provide the skills and tools to succeed in areas that are considered "unbanked," or have little access to banking, according to Concourse CEO and co-founder Andrew Kingsley. About one-quarter of central Brooklyn residents fall under the category of unbanked, Kingsley said.
"Banking's a very dry business," Kingsley said. "It should really be this plain and simple job, but it's turned into this crazy industry."
In Good Counsel's model, a group of parishioners pools their money, and anyone who has a stake in the credit union can get loans at percentages lower than your average bank.
Rather than rely on ATMs or online banking, the credit union has survived on its original passbook system. Members fill out a slip, and Henry fills out the member's passbook with the relevant information.
There are 187 members in the credit union, and about $500,000 in total assets, according to Concourse. These members include low-income Bed-Stuy parishioners, and those like Glenda Evans, 58, who said she doesn't trust the corporate banking structure.
"I don't like the online business, too much fraud going on," Evans said. "I'm just used too old school."
In 2009, the National Credit Union Administration cited 15 shuttered or consolidated institutions, and that number has increased, year after year. In 2012, it reached 29, and this year, it's already at 15.
A spokesman from NCUA said that while there are many reasons for credit unions to close, including shrinking memberships, there has been "a certain amount of consolidation going on in the industry, mainly smaller credit unions merging into larger ones, for example."
Kingsley and Concourse said they're working to help Henry's credit union avoid what they say would be a similar fate if they don't upgrade. Periodically, volunteers from the group head to Bed-Stuy, where they transcribe 47 years of transactions from the old ledger onto an old Dell computer.
"It's run efficiently, considering Mr. Henry's the only one carrying the burden," said Jose Mercado, 53, a volunteer from Bethex Credit Union in the Bronx. "Our goal is to keep it in the computer, but we need the software."
Henry himself has concerns over the future of the credit union. Without the new equipment, it could face additional hurdles going forward. And with the church's aging population combined with a lack of new members, he's afraid that the best-case scenario might be to merge with another credit union.
But as long as it stays solvent, he's going to continue trying to help those in the neighborhood who need it most, Henry said.
"If you're low-income, and you're not working, and you need to get credit, you're going to be denied," Henry said. "Credit unions are a source of good credit for people. Especially low-income people."