(Source: Ellis Smith Chattanooga Times/Free Press, Tenn. (MCT) — The rural credit company that made it through recessions and fought off attempted takeovers for 68 years soon will lose its independence.
In a move that surprised and dismayed some members, Chattanooga Agricultural Credit Association will merge with the larger Jackson Purchase Agricultural Credit Association out of Kentucky to create River Valley AgCredit, effective July 1.
“Stress in certain segments of our portfolio caused a drop in earnings and impacted our ability to make patronage payments,” board members of Chattanooga Ag Credit wrote to members of the cooperative a few days before the vote.
Chattanooga Agricultural made its money making loans to rural farmers, who in turn bought stock in the company.
However, “the adverse financial conditions over the past several years and the continuing uncertainties facing us have caused us to reevaluate our structure,” the company wrote.
The problem is, not everybody’s buying that story.
Charlie Barker, a third-generation member of Chattanooga Agricultural, said the merger will send members’ hard-earned money to an association based in Mayfield, Ky.
It’s true the Chattanooga Agricultural lost $260,000 in 2011, he acknowledged. But it would take years to eat through the cooperative’s vast reserves at that rate.
Furthermore, the merger will transfer members’ $27 million war chest out-of-state, including a $13.3 million unallocated surplus that would disappear forever, Barker charged.
“When the merger takes place, the new board has the discretion to take that away from the members, and they don’t have to pay it back,” Barker said. “But it’s the membership’s money, they made it.”
His father, who served as Chattanooga Agricultural’s chairman in the 1980s, also questioned the timing of the merger.
The co-op’s members, many of whom are farmers busy with spring fieldwork, received the 189-page single-spaced disclosure statement on May 7, with instructions to read it and mail their ballots back by May 12, said Flavius Barker.
“A little over 200 voted out of 1,300,” said the elder Barker.
In fact, company officials say that about 250 voted out of 1,400, and the vote was about two-to-one in favor of the merger.
Now, a group of members are working to reverse the vote. Petitions and signatures are making the rounds through farm country, ahead of a Friday deadline to call for another vote on the merger.
Anti-merger members say they’ll need more than 200 names to win the right to another vote.
But Chattanooga Agricultural board member Blan Dougherty argued that the deal is good for members, and that anti-merger activists are working against their own interests.
“We were concerned that if we didn’t do something to get a bigger footprint, then we might get stepped on,” Dougherty said. “This merger is a pretty sweet deal for both organizations.”
As for the $13 million in members’ unallocated surplus, Dougherty said that the merger would do a better job of protecting that money than the status quo.
“There’s been no change in that, it’s no more risky now than it was before,” he said.
©2012 the Chattanooga Times/Free Press (Chattanooga, Tenn.)
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