This is your new merged bank, playing Scrooge | WisCommunity

This is your new merged bank, playing Scrooge

[img_assist|nid=121958|title=|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=170|height=128]Fire up your copy of "It's a Wonderful Life" and concentrate not on generous George Bailey's travails in fictional Bedford Falls, but the movie's improbably hopeful ending. Because an actual version of heartless financier Henry Potter is coming to a town near you only his equivalent is a really, really gigantic corporate person. And, unlike the movie, this real-life story isn't as likely to turn out as well.

That's how it is these days in America and, now, in Wisconsin. You do everything right, and you pay your bills on time. Your reward? You lose your mortgage and then, possibly, the business, church or other place you hold dear.

The reported instigator? An Illinois-based bank, subsidiary of a giant Canadian bank, that recently bought up big and little banks across Wisconsin, including the state's largest. Welcome, perhaps once again, to merger mania and cold-hearted business decisions that hurt many innocent people for no apparent good reason.

According to WISC-TV News in Madison, as many as 52 business and property owners in and near the Sauk County community of Reedsburg (population 10,000) reportedly are facing foreclosure even though many have never missed a mortgage payment. The bank that's reportedly moving on them? BMO Harris, an Illinois lender that took over the assets of the city's home-grown Reedsburg Bank.

The move will force many owners to downsize their operations, but BMO Harris Bank's decision is perfectly legal, mortgage experts told the station. Less operating income (apparently for the borrowers, not the bank itself), coupled with falling property values "compelled" the bank to act, according to one anonymous business owner. Mortgage experts told the station that banks have the ability to opt out of commercial loans because of contractual terms -- terms that obviously favor banks at the expense of their customers. For itself, BMO Harris is reserving comment.

WISC reported that one local institution in jeopardy is Dave Gonzalez's nonprofit church in Lake Delton. The church apparently is in the same fix as the other 51 borrowers: It isn't making enough money, and the asset has lost value in the commercial real estate market because, of course, other bubble-headed financial institutions crashed the economy. That's right: The not-for-profit church isn't profitable enough.

"We've never been behind on a payment, always had more than enough money," Gonzalez told WISC. "What business does a church have acting like a business and making a profit? If we get money in, we should take care of the community -- the people that have financial needs -- and preach the gospel."

Amen to that, brother.

BMO Harris is a subsidiary of the Canadian lender Bank of Montreal. Earlier this year, Marshall & Ilsley Corp., the largest Wisconsin-based bank holding company, was sold for $4.1 billion to Canadian banking powerhouse BMO Financial Group, parent company of Harris Bank and Bank of Montreal. If the WISC report is accurate and the Reedsburg affair is indeed the policy of BMO Harris, we might expect to see more commercial and institutional foreclosures in Wisconsin. 

It'd be good if our supposed watchdogs in government would shed more light on this situation, and deal with it in a community-sensitive way. How about a public hearing? Of course, that would require a governor and a legislature and a state banking commissioner who are not in thrall to big business. With Scott Walker and company in charge, the attitude in Madison regarding this case, as in most such cases, is likely to be, "Bah, humbug!"

Ho. Ho. Ho. Merry Christmas. Almost makes you want to jump off a bridge on a snowy Christmas Eve, just like George Bailey.

Be forewarned that we'll see a lot of Harris Bank branches springing up across the state in the weeks and months ahead as the Harris firm subsumes existing M&I Bank outlets. My advice, if your banking institution becomes a Harris operation? Consider moving your money to a locally owned and controlled bank or credit union, and let Harris know why, starting with concern that unfair lending policies could turn good Wisconsin towns like Reedsburg into Pottersville.


December 23, 2011 - 12:34pm