RALEIGH, N.C. — Despite cash-strapped coffers at many cities and counties, LGFCU Financial Partners LLC has been able to approve more than $9 million in loans in its first six months of operation, far exceeding its five-year projection of $2 million.

A subsidiary of Local Government Federal Credit Union, LGFCU Financial Partners, launched in April to offer commercial loans to North Carolina’s cities and counties. Since then, the CUSO has cemented a presence in 26 of the state’s 100 counties (see CU Times, May 21, 2008). More than 40 loans have been approved for everything from their largest loan of $1.7 million for four fire trucks to $18,000 for a used ambulance.

“It really came a lot quicker than we anticipated,” said Deborah Isenhour, president of LGFCU Financial Partners. “We forecasted we would have $1 million on the books in the first year and $2 million by the fifth year. Instead, to date, we have more than $9 million in loans on the books and expect that to grow to $20 million by the end of the year.”

Isenhour said more than 65% of their loans are made in economically disadvantaged counties. The Department of Commerce rates North Carolina’s counties according to how distressed they are based on a number of factors including what percentage of the population falls within poverty guidelines. Tier one and tier two, considered to be the most distressed, encompass 80 counties and make up the bulk LGFCU’s business, Isenhour said.

“That makes sense to us because we always thought that would be our niche,” Isenhour said. “A lot of the other financial institutions are looking at the higher tiers and will undercut rates to get the business.”

The Swannanoa Fire Department learned about the CUSO through its firefighters’ association, said Chief Anthony Penland. Impressed with the low rate, the department put $99,000 down on a $425,000 loan and recently opened up a money market account for automatic loan-payment deductions. Penland said the loan officer “bent over backwards” to find a rate to fit the department’s budget.

“He didn’t have to bend very far because the rates were really good,” Penland said. “We’ve had three loans over the past few years and by far, this was the easiest and fastest one.”

Penland, who now serves on LGFCU’s service advisory council, said most of the firefighters are members. The credit union made such an impression that the department plans to refinance its new building there. Penland said the original loan went through RBC Centura, which charges a prepayment penalty before 10 years.

Indeed, community banks continue to offer the CUSO its most head-to-head competition. Many of them have an edge because they house some of the counties’ commercial deposit accounts. Isenhour said it is not uncommon for banks to come in and undercut them by one-tenth of a basis point.

“If we were another financial institution, the temptation would be to undercut them back. But if they have a better rate to offer, we say ‘good for them,’” Isenhour said. “We’re not going to be drawn into that game. We know what our game plan is and we’re sticking to it.”

That plan involves serving communities long forgotten by bigger entities, she explained. The CUSO’s two commercial loan officers take a consultative approach to lending. Rather than just making the loan, staff will peel back the layers to understand each financial situation. Isenhour said their intentions are to provide the most fiscally responsible solution. The approach seems to have caught on in the tight-knit community of firefighters and emergency service personnel. Much of the CUSO’s business has come through word of mouth.

Meanwhile, nationwide, some local governments have reported being in debt and as a result, services have scaled back. Fortunately, that has not been the case yet in North Carolina in large part because most counties reassess property values every three to four years.

“I suspect that since [counties] will always need emergency services, we probably won’t see a huge impact,” Isenhour said.

Stories like being able to finance a fire station’s first independent facility after sharing space with rescue services reaffirm LGFCU’s mission. So far, the CUSO has not had to make any adjustments to its underwriting standards to account for the sluggish economy; the tradition has always been to err on the conservative side with loans.

“Part of it is not taking risks with the CUSO,” Isenhour said. “Mostly, it’s not putting the departments in danger of giving them a payment that can’t handle.”

–msamaad@cutimes.com