Free, Professional Financial Counselors Aim to Help Struggling Syracuse Residents

Jul 18, 2019

Valerie Hill racked up six figures in debt after dealing with multiple personal crises over 3 to 4 years. She's been able to reduce her debt thanks to the professional financial counselors at the newly-launched Syracuse Financial Empowerment Center.
Credit Scott Willis / WAER-FM 88.3

Syracuse resident Valerie Hill seemed to have it all…a successful entrepreneur, stable finances…then it came crashing down.   She gave up her businesses to save her marriage, but the eventual divorce ruined her good credit, and she lost the house and car.  Then, Hill’s parents became ill, requiring hospitalization and nursing home care. 

Her sister passed away unexpectedly, and she covered funeral expenses.  She depleted her retirement account and maxed out credit cards.  Hill says the mounting debt went into the six figures.  That’s when she learned about the new Syracuse Financial Empowerment Center.

"This is not a spot I was comfortable in.  I've always been financially stable.  My grandmother taught me that, my mom and my dad...we did ledgers at the dinner table," she said.  "If I'm going through it, someone else is going through it.  Pride might stop them from getting the service.  I want everyone to know this isn't a pride thing.  This is about you taking care of yourself."

The city launched its center Thursday, which provides one-on-one professional counseling to residents to help reduce debt, build savings, improve credit scores, and find safe banking…all at no charge.  It’s based on a national non-profit called Cities for Financial Empowerment Fund.  President and CEO Jonathan Mintz says they want to reduce the stigma and embarrassment about seeking financial advice...

"For years and years, when people were having trouble with their finances, the primary response was, 'you need financial literacy,' which is basically saying, 'you need to get smarter.'  That's not really what's going on when people are struggling with their finances.  Things happen.  People get into trouble."

Commissioner of Neighborhood Development Stephanie Pasquale hopes the counseling service becomes a trusted resource.

Commissioner Stephanie Pasquale says city hall staffers are often the first to know a resident might be financially struggling.
Credit Scott Willis / WAER-FM 88.3

"You can really feel alone, isolated.  'Oh, I made this mistake, I can't believe I bought that thing on credit and now I've paid for it four times over.'  It affects us all.  We're all one medical bill, or one financial foot on the banana peel."

She says city staffers might be the first to learn of a resident’s financial struggles, and can refer people to the program.

"We're a high touch-point entity, whether it's paying taxes, parking tickets, water bills.  There are a lot of families coming to us trying to figure out, do I pay my water, do I pay my taxes?"

The financial counselors can help residents sort that out.  Home Headquarters and the Allyn Family Foundation are supporting the center, which is one of more than two dozen nationwide.  In all, CEO Jonathan Mintz says they’ve helped 85,000 clients, and eliminated more than $100 million in debt.  Five counselors will be at locations across the city.  The service is available to all city residents, regardless of income.  Appointments can be made by calling 474-1939, ext. 5, or their website.