Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Counselling program pays dividends

Non-profit helps families 'get out of crushing debt'

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When it comes to lightning rods for political dissatisfaction in Manitoba, the most intense bolts of discontent are often directed at the premier. After all, Premier Greg Selinger is "the man," after and leading a government that's been in power for almost 15 years, there's no shortage of pent-up rage against the machine.

Valid gripes about shoddy highways, long wait times for health care and taxes aside, the current government has done a lot of good work to increase consumer protection during its tenure, from a new bill of rights for condo buyers to toughening regulation on payday-loan companies and eliminating certain restrictions on store-bought gift cards.

The premier, a long time advocate for levelling the playing field for consumers, deserves some of the credit. Long before entering politics, Selinger railed against the powers that be.

Well, maybe he wasn't fighting "the man" so much as he was working to sway his opinion.

About four decades ago, Selinger would tuck his pony-tail under the collar of his shirt while meeting with bureaucrats, convincing them of the need for better consumer protections.

Fast-forward to 2014, this very high profile political figure -- with nicely coifed short hair -- was recently the keynote speaker in celebrating the 40th anniversary of a low-profile community organization with a long track record of helping thousands of Manitobans: Community Financial Counselling Services.

As one of its founders, Selinger has always had a soft spot for the United Way-funded, non-profit outfit that provides free debt counselling, tax preparation and gambling-addiction services, and financial literacy programming for students and adults.

Community Financial Counselling Services has come a long way since Selinger and fellow community activist Clay Lewis started it up in 1974.

"At the time, I was helping found a credit union to help inner-city people and one of the issues that was fairly obvious is people were getting ripped off on their tax returns by tax-discounting companies," said the premier in a brief interview with the Free Press earlier this month.

Many of Main Street's more transient, low-income residents were selling their T4 slips to fly-by-night tax preparers in exchange for a substantial percentage of their pending tax refund.

"The T4 slips would be worth, say, $500 and they would maybe get $75 in return, so we set up a program where we would help people file their tax return and then set up a credit union account so they got all their return back, except for interest on a credit union loan, putting extra money in their pocket while providing competition to the tax discounters."

Initially called the Community Income Tax Service, CFCS first set up shop on Main Street in a rundown tenement.

Word got around quickly it was offering a fair deal, preparing people's taxes and getting them a refund for a small fraction of the cost they would otherwise pay to the dodgy tax discounters literally across the street.

The concept also caught on swiftly elsewhere.

"The Community Income Tax Service became a program that organizations across the country used as the model to develop similar programs," said the premier. "Eventually we also got federal legislation to put limits on tax discounting."

Yet people didn't just need tax help. They were also facing difficulties with creditors. Although credit cards were very rare back then, they were catching on fast and with their use came a new type of financial problem for families: high-interest household debt.

CFCS recognized this growing need, and over the years its role expanded far beyond providing tax preparation services to spend a great deal of its resources helping families balance their budgets to get out of crushing debt.

"While many of our initial clientele were low income, and many still are, we see far more middle-income families today," said CFCS debt counsellor Sally Massey-Wiebe.

Among the individuals now seeking help are indebted retirees, self-employed workers wrestling with growing, unpaid income tax bills; recently divorced folks running households on half their previous income; families dealing with job loss or prolonged illnesses and households "living a BMW lifestyle on a bicycle budget," she added.

"From a place that only provided free tax refund, CFCS has become a unique credit counselling agency that takes a holistic view of individuals' financial issues," said its executive director John Silver.

To boot, the organization has helped shape government policy over the last several years, including stricter regulation on interest that can be charged on payday loans and better protections for indebted families against unscrupulous, so-called debt repayment companies from the U.S. more interested in generating revenues from fees charged to clients than helping them repay debt.

"Manitoba has been a leader in Canada on these issues because of this agency," said Richard Asselin, who chaired CFCS's board for 12 years until retiring last December.

"It's an agency of firsts -- very small, but very effective."

While it's never hurts having a sympathetic ear in the premier's office, CFCS's track record speaks for itself, Asselin said.

"Even if we didn't have a friend in the premier, the government would still seek our advice because of the work we've done over the years."

giganticsmile@gmail.com

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 28, 2014 B12

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