CU Helps Cops Avoid Financial Arrest

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Their stories are similar. They are all young Pittsburgh police officers, either newly engaged, newly married or about to have their first child and carrying new home loans with Greater Pittsburgh Police FCU. Some have vehicle loans. For most, the credit union is their primary financial institution. And all have been laid off.

The recent budget crisis in Pittsburgh has led to the layoffs of the police officers, leaving most scared, angry and emotional. Greater Pittsburgh Police Officer FCU CEO Sandy Lazzara knew exactly what to do.

"The mayor laid off close to 100 officers,'' she said. "While some have been called back, 84 are still out -75 are our members.''

Combined, they have borrowed more than a half-million dollars, she said, noting that at least half relocated due to the requirement that officers live in the city. It was the first bout of lay-offs that this $35.5-million credit union had experienced during its 68-year existence serving area police officers.

Luckily, it wasn't the first for Lazzara, hired two years earlier after working at a nearby SEG CU, where lay-offs were commonplace. "So, I got together with the board to come up with a few plans.''

The first, she said, was to allow interest-only payments on loans and the option of refinancing those loans once the officers returned to work, either in Pittsburgh or elsewhere. Lazzara said the board was confident that their members, most college educated and dedicated to their professions, would be back on their feet in no time.

And that led to their second plan.

"We have a new facility with plenty of space, so we opened it up as a testing site for surrounding police departments looking for new recruits.''

So far, departments from Prince George County and Montgomery County, both in Maryland, and the city of Fairfax, Va. have taken them up on the offer.

"As much as we hate to lose such fine officers, we believe in member helping members,'' Lazzara said. "We are not part of the city, and not part of the police department. We are simply here to help them.''

She said once the lay-offs were announced, her staff sent e-mails, faxes and letters to members and police stations emphasizing the CU's position. "We wanted them to know that we are not involved in (the lay offs) in any way,'' she said.

For many, it has been a welcome relief. "One young man came in and was extremely emotional,'' she said. "But after our loan officer explained our position, he said he felt a huge burden lifted.'' The officer was certain she saw tears in his eyes.

Lazzara said the CU has been working closely with the local Fraternal Order of Police, which set up a fund to help officers offset the cost of health insurance. For one young officer with a wife and two children, the monthly cost is $900, Lazzara said. "How's he going to pay that?''

She said several charitable organizations have donated money and the community showed its support by raising funds at a street fair and dance.

Stressing The Positives

"We're looking at this in a very positive way,'' Lazzara said. "The factor right now is to be sympathetic, supportive and helpful. We have a lot of time in the future to take a more hardnosed approach.''

While she's hoping it'll all be over in three months when the new budget is passed, Lazzara said she's not holding her breath. Already, there has been talk of cutting 50 more officers from their jobs.With loan volume of about $1.5 million monthly, Lazzara said, she's not worried. "We are out to be their primary institution and we really believe in helping our members.''

She said she took the opportunity to attend a recent recruiting event, where she promoted the CU and got everyone in attendance that was not already a member to join.

"We assured them-once a member, always a member,'' she said, adding that the credit union was there to help.

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