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SUPERIOR, Wis. – For two Wisconsin credit unions based here, reaching out to help the underserved and low income in their communities has taken the form of engines and wheels. The credit unions have teamed up with a local social service agency to fund loans that people with low incomes can use to buy reliable and safe transportation for themselves and their families. “Transportation can be a real stumbling block in Douglas County,” said Dan Laine, vice president for loan programs at the $28 million Metro Credit Union, one of the institutions partnered in the effort. The county is mostly rural and large, and public or mass transit doesn’t exist for the overwhelming majority of people who live in the county’s rural areas, he explained. That means that, without a car, many of them are effectively trapped in their low-income circumstances, he added. “We see these car loans as an effective way to help meet some of our members’ important needs,” he said. The program is called Jump Start and Metro is partnered in it with the Northwest Wisconsin Community Services Agency (NWCSA) and the $95 million Superior Community Credit Union, also based in Superior. Under the program, the NWCSA provides the initial screening of applicants for need and to make sure that they either work already or are being trained for some sort of work. NWCSA also does the legwork of actually finding a car and matching a family’s needs with a vehicle. “We aren’t being asked to finance anybody’s sports car,” Laine said. “The agency has parameters for the cars which specify they cannot be over a certain number of miles, must be able to be put under warranty, etc.” And, most importantly from the point of view of the credit unions as lenders, the agency provides a $3,000 down payment loan for each car, a factor which can help the lender make sure the proposed loan does not violate lending guidelines even as it might stretch them, according to Wally Barry, lending director for Superior Credit Union. “The $3,000 down payment can help make up for other weaknesses which might be in a loan application,” Barry said. For example, the institution’s concerns about an applicant’s recent job, or a patchy job history, or participation in a job training program can be put to rest because the credit union is not being asked to fund the entire car purchase, he explained. The two credit unions are the only financial institutions in the county that participate in the program, Laine said, a fact he attributed to Jump Start’s focus on finding the loan applicants the best possible deal for the car loans. “I want to stress that our participation in this program is really for the needs of our most challenged members,” Laine said. “We are definitely not in this for the money. We don’t risk price these loans. These loan applicants get the same rate on their car loans as a company president would if he applied,” Laine explained. The fact that the Jump Start program has funding for 15 cars this year underscored the fact the credit unions are not involved in the program for the money. “We make hundreds of car loans each month,” Barry noted, but the program’s limit is 15. “Nobody is getting rich off this.” Because each of the credit unions has a community- based field of membership the applicants have to become credit union members before taking the loan, a fact that Laine noted can help them get started on savings. Laine also noted that the credit unions report the borrowers participation in the loans to credit bureaus, enabling the borrowers to build up more positive credit history. In addition to taking place in Douglas County, the Jump Start program is also in other predominantly rural counties in the state, but Laine did not know which ones. However, he did note that the program’s statewide funding is also a weakness, given the number of state budget cuts taking place around the country. “We look forward to using this program for as long as they find it,” he said. [email protected]

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