City of Racine

RACINE ⏤ City of Racine residents who are struggling with finances, debt, poor credit and related issues can get free, professional one-on-one help at the new Racine Financial Empowerment Center (FEC).

The new center officially opened at a Monday virtual news conference.

The Racine FEC is the first city-sponsored program of its kind in the state.

Mayor Cory Mason said the new service is “critically important” to three of his priorities on behalf of Racine residents:

  • Financial hardships caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic; 
  • Addressing economic disparities between the city’s white residents and its residents of color; 
  • And helping to increase minority home ownership.

The Racine FEC’s program director and two trained financial counselors are working from office space in the Racine Public Library. They will provide services remotely (online and via telephone) for the foreseeable future.

Individual appointments can be made at: (262) 200-0831 or by visiting www.racinefec.org. Residents can have as many counseling sessions as needed, all free of charge and completely confidential.

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‘Baby steps’

Residents who set up an initial meeting with a Racine FEC counselor will review their financial picture (earnings, debt, credit history) and discuss goal-setting.

“This takes baby steps,” said Curtis Szymczak, an FEC counselor. “We’re here to be a coach and a cheerleader to help you succeed.”

“We anticipate a lot of hand-holding and listening,” said Xenia Jackson, an FEC counselor who is bilingual in English and Spanish. 

She added that she wished her family could have had access to these financial tools when she was growing up. 

There could many reasons for Racine residents to seek the free guidance from the FEC, added Vicky Selkowe, Racine’s manager of strategic initiatives and community partnerships. 

These may include:

  • Feeling overwhelmed by debt, struggling with a budget, not having a “rainy day fund” to cover unexpected expenses;
  • feeling intimidated by financial institutions;
  • reliance on expensive payday loans;
  • having a low credit score;
  • And wanting to financially plan for the future.

The new FEC should be able to handle the initial demand for services, but the city will be seeking additional public and private-sector sponsors, she said.

The city matched a $150,000 Cities for Financial Empowerment Fund (CFE Fund) grant to launch the FEC with money from a federal Community Development Block Grant, NeighborhoodWorks America and local providers.

Local providers included Educators Credit Union, Associated Bank, Tri City National Bank, U.S. Bank, Johnson Financial Group and Goodwill Industries of Southeast Wisconsin. 

Housing Resources Inc., an area organization that provides home buyer education and counseling, is the Racine FEC local nonprofit partner.

‘A really big deal’

“This is a really big deal. Racine is adding an important tool to its toolbelt,” said Jonathan Mintz, president and CEO of the CTE Fund, a New York City-based organization that assists local municipalities in improving the financial stability of individual households.

“People with financial issues don’t need websites or brochures. They need to talk and get help from other people.”

The FEC model was first piloted in 2008 in New York City. Since then, FECs have helped clients reduce more than $160 million in individual debt and increase family savings by more than $26 million.

Racine joins a national network of 32 other FECs in communities of all sizes, including Atlanta, Rochester, N.Y.; Polk County (Des Moines), Iowa; Lansing, Mich., and Aurora, Ill. 

Mintz complimented Racine for getting its FEC off to a good start by building a strong referral network with more than 15 local agencies. These include United Way of Racine County, Racine County Social Services, YMCA of Southeast Wisconsin and Gateway Technical College.

FEC a learning community

Racine FEC personnel have already received extensive training. They will have access to a national database created by the CTE Fund to help them develop workable, longterm plans for families and individuals.

“It’s not just a grant, but Racine is part of a national learning community,” Mintz said. 

The Racine FEC has been in the works for about 14 months. Selkowe and other city staff members identified and developed partnerships that helped leverage CTE Fund investment. 

She said the program is ready to go to work for residents who need it.

“It might take you two sessions,” she said. “It might take you 10 sessions, but it’s here to help you.”

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