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Wilson Domenech, Comptroller Weitzman, Steve Schmidt, Jan DiGeronimo, Mike Miller, Legislator Dave Mejias, Yvette Pacheco and Lorraine Donner.

Farmingdale residents gathered on March 30 at the Farmingdale Library for a two-fold meeting concerning the economic crisis. During the first half-hour, Nassau County Comptroller Howard Weitzman and Legislator Dave Mejias provided a detailed explanation of Nassau County's finances; the following hour and 45 minutes was devoted to a foreclosure and financial literacy workshop where a panel of experts provided advice on housing, mortgages, predatory lending, credit cards, and other financial planning in a recession.

"This is the first time we've done a town hall meeting on these pertinent topics," says Mejias. "We get calls all of the time from our constituents about housing, mortgages, and foreclosures. Our goal is to bring government to the people. We decided to bring all of these experts together in one forum where they could let our constituents know what is available to them."

The two-hour meeting began with Comptroller Weitzman describing the acute financial dilemma in Nassau County due to the recession, the reduction of aid from the state, and the reduction in spending and tax collection from residents.

"Nassau County is not causing the problems," says Weitzman. "We didn't have a lot of housing speculation like other parts of the country and we didn't have firms issuing a lot of bad loans to our residents. We're also seeing our residents saving money at 5 percent a month and paying down credit card debt."

However, Weitzman explained, the county is seeing a 1 percent decline in sales tax revenues for the first time since 1990, translating into a $40 million budget gap. In addition, the county is seeing for the first time in history back-to-back drop in sales tax.

Mejias joined the conversation from a legislator's perspective saying that Albany has given Nassau County permission to raise fees on residents where it doesn't hurt as much.

"There are no easy or good taxes," says Mejias. "But we have to balance the budget. There are too many people who depend on the county."

The two Nassau County office-holders turned the meeting over to the panel of experts who gave presentations and answered questions. The theme running throughout the rest of the evening was to maintain or build a good credit score, seek free expert help, and how to avoid scams and illegal activity.

Steven Schmidt, director of operations, and Jan DiGeronimo, business development manager, both from Sperry Credit Union in Farmingdale, explained what a credit score is and the importance of having a high score. Credit scores range from 425 to 825, they explained, with 35 percent your payment history, 30 percent your capacity (percent of revolving available), 15 percent length of credit, 10 percent accumulation of debt, and 10 percent mix of credit (installment versus revolving). "Scoring is used by most lending institutions to price loans (interest rate) and assign a risk factor," said Schmidt. They displayed a chart depicting a 60-month auto loan and the difference between a high credit score and their assigned loan rate compared to a person with a low credit score and their interest rate.

"Protect your credit score and get a free report each year," recommended DiGeronimo. "A poor credit score will cost you thousands in higher interest rates."

Yvette Pacheco, deputy director of Homeownership Center, agreed: "Credit is key. The days of obtaining a home with little or no credit are gone. That's what caused our current crisis. But out of the bad comes good." She warned against slick foreclosure rescue firms that charge from $1,500 to $3,000 whereas her group offers free counseling. The Homeownership Center also offers a default protection hotline in Nassau County at 516-571-HOME.

On a more optimistic note, Mike Miller of the Long Island Housing Partnership Inc. described grants up to $25,000 available to first-time homebuyers. LIHP is a not-for-profit organization that since 1988 has been to provide affordable housing opportunities to those who would be unable to secure decent and safe homes. LIHP realizes this mission through the development and sponsorship of affordable ownership and rental units, as well as through related services. "Our group is not to just help Long Islanders with affordability but sustainability," he remarked.

Finally, Lorraine Donner of the Nassau County New York State Attorney General's Office, explained several "red flags" or deceptive practices to be aware of. People who appear at your front door offering you a loan, home improvement schemes that sound too good to be true, and high pressure tactics need to be avoided. She said to call your local attorney general's office to report these tactics. "Never sign a contract with blank spaces," she said, "Beware of straw buyer scams where a con artist suggests a way for you to keep your house. They propose that another person with a good credit record, maybe even themselves, will get a second mortgage on your home to keep you in your home but you need to sign the deed over to them. Once that has transpired, you no longer own your home and you've lost any equity you may have."


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