Municipal coalition to Congress: Empower users of financial services

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by Charlene Crowell

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Some might wonder how two cities as demographically and economically different as Savannah, Ga. and Seattle, Wash. would find common interests. After all, Savannah’s approximately 128,000 residents are known for quaint gentility, weeping willows and tributes to native son, the late composer Johnny Mercer. With 600,000 residents in the Pacific Northwest, Seattle’s world-famous Space Needle, is home to Starbucks and the natural beauty of Puget Sound. The cities are also — literally — on two different coasts.

Yet despite their vastly different profiles, these cities are among a 10-member municipal coalition from varying states and regions that have chosen to unite their voices, influence and resources on behalf of low-income residents in the elusive pursuit of financial reform.  Known as Cities for Financial Empowerment (CFE), the coalition is the nation’s first and only financial empowerment coalition of municipal governments. Their mission is to “aggressively and creatively leverage local opportunities, resources and powers to improve the financial health of their residents.”

Those now debating and bargaining for influence to re-shape the current financial reform bill in the U.S. Senate would be well-advised to heed the concerns of municipal officials. Across the country, disgruntled citizens seldom take their plights to Washington, DC. But they can and do make their way to city halls and council chambers where playing political dodge ball on a hot issue usually leads to disastrous results for everyone.

The Center for Responsible Lending (CRL) holds the view that real financial reform should support federal policies and regulation working in concert with other levels of government to eliminate the current and confusing turnstile that most consumers feel caught in. So it seems that CFE and CRL share an important goal: When it comes to finance, consumers need and deserve a transparent process that will resolve questions regarding terms, debts, and responsibilities of all parties.

Supported by organizations that includes the Annie. E. Casey Foundation, National League of Cities, William J. Clinton Foundation and others, the CFE coalition’s sister cities are: Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, Newark (NJ), New York, Providence (RI), San Antonio and San Francisco.

Together, these 10 municipalities are forging three specific goals:

Share data, best practices and strategies to improve their cities; work strategically with state and national stakeholders to advance a financial empowerment agenda; and

Increase public awareness of key issues and opportunities.

For example, CFE was an early supporter of the proposed federal Consumer Financial Protection Agency (CFPA). Last fall, a letter was sent to the leadership in the U.S. House and Senate that called for CFPA to have authority over both bank and non-bank financial service providers.

The October 7, 2009 letter, co-signed by CFE co-chairs, Jonathan Mintz, Commissioner for New York City’s Department of Consumer Affairs and Jose Cisneros, Treasurer for the City and County of San Francisco said in part, “The financial empowerment efforts of CFE Coalition cities have had significant impacts on the populations of some of America’s largest metropolitan areas, helping residents with low to moderate incomes access mainstream banking services, obtain high-quality financial education and counseling, and designing innovative asset building efforts.”

Continuing Mintz and Cisneros added, “However much more could be accomplished by coupling these municipal initiatives with a coordinated federal effort to protect and empower users of financial services.”

Should anyone question the utility of inter-governmental coordination, recall Hurricane Katrina. It was the inability of local, state and federal governments to work together efficiently that worsened and prolonged that crisis. Even today after several years, New Orleans has yet to fully recover.

Economically speaking, the current financial crisis is another disaster: 48 states are in a deficit mode; according to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, these deficits will trigger teacher layoffs in the range of 100,000-300,000 across the country.

According to CRL’s own research, every 13 seconds another foreclosure occurs and 6.6 million foreclosures have occurred since 2007. Moreover, nearly one in four homeowners now owe more than their house is worth and over 69 million homes nearby these foreclosures have lost property value as well.

In other words, this nation needs to pass a bill that sets a federal floor, not a ceiling, to what consumers have a right to expect in financial services from mortgages, to credit cards, payday and title loans and more.

Charlene Crowell is the Center for Responsible Lending’s Communications Manager for State Policy and Outreach. She can be reached at: Charlene.crowell@responsiblelending.org

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