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More than two dozen community groups have written letters to federal regulators who are considering M&T Bank Corp.’s proposed purchase of Hudson City Bancorp in New Jersey, with all but three citing positive experiences with M&T and supporting the deal.

In their comment letters to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 22 of the 25 organizations urge the Fed to approve the $3.7 billion cash-and-stock deal, praising Buffalo-based M&T’s record of lending, investing and supporting communities across its six-state market.

“M&T Bank has proven itself as an important part of the community development efforts in Western New York,” wrote Michael Riegel, of Belmont Housing Resources of Western New York. “We are confident that they do the same in other communities, and we support their merger with Hudson City.”

The groups, many of whom were encouraged or solicited by M&T to write the letters, praised the bank’s accomplishments, activities and local charitable or leadership role in cities and towns from upstate New York through Virginia. They listed the bank’s efforts in providing affordable mortgages, partnering with groups, serving on boards, donating money and improving its services.

“Time and again, M&T has sought out opportunities with nonprofits not just to fund, but to build capacity to do more for their communities,” wrote John D. Murphy, executive director of HomeFront and Broadway-Fillmore Neighborhood Housing Services in Buffalo. “I can’t think of a more responsible lender in broadly meeting community investment needs of the communities they serve.”

But not all comments were so rosy. Three prominent community activist groups – from New York City, New Jersey and Washington – questioned the lending and investment past of both Hudson City and M&T.

They cited statistics that purport to show a poor history of commitment to serving low- and moderate-income communities or minority neighborhoods. They denounced Hudson City’s record in particular and challenged M&T to demonstrate how it would improve that. They criticized M&T for not being more specific about what new products and services it will bring to Hudson City’s markets and how it will benefit New Jersey communities or correct the alleged lending failures of Hudson City.

And they called on regulators to demand more detailed information from the two banks, hold public hearings or even reject the merger.

“We have major concerns about how the proposed merger will impact New Jersey. Some of the data is beyond alarming,” wrote Phyllis Salowe-Kaye, executive director of New Jersey Citizen Action. “The issues we raise in this letter are far too important to be resolved behind closed doors.”

The Federal Reserve, as the industry’s lead systemic regulator and overseer of bank holding companies, has to weigh in on the merger before it can be approved. Regulators accepted public comments in the fall, but a decision is still pending.

Under the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act, regulators must consider a bank’s record of lending, investing and serving the communities in which it takes deposits. That has rarely derailed a merger, but community groups routinely use such opportunities to attack banks’ performance and pressure them into increasing their lending and improving how they do business.

M&T solicited support from other community groups.

“These are the organizations that we work with every day, from Buffalo to Baltimore and beyond, to build and strengthen the communities we serve,” said M&T spokesman C. Michael Zabel. “These are the groups that do the real work in our communities – the groups that know us best – and we are extremely grateful for their support.”

The organizations include several from Buffalo – such as Belmont, HomeFront, PUSH Buffalo and Local Initiatives Support Corp. – as well as groups from Rochester, Syracuse, Albany, Troy, Poughkeepsie, Newburgh, New York City, Baltimore and Richmond, Va. The groups cited M&T’s loans for first-time homebuyers, its financial support and sponsorship of nonprofits, its tailoring of products to meet specific needs, its housing preservation efforts and its branch initiatives.

“M&T Bank has been a significant partner, lender and leader,” said Mark Sissman, president of Healthy Neighborhoods in Baltimore.

Besides Citizen Action, those in opposition or expressing caution include New York City-based activist Matthew Lee, of Inner City Press/Fair Finance Watch, and Washington-based National Community Reinvestment Coalition, an umbrella group of more than 600 community groups around the country. Lee, who submitted four comments, has a record of opposing all bank mergers.

“M&T has not met its burden of proving that the public will benefit from its deal to buy Hudson City Savings Bank,” wrote NCRC CEO John Taylor. “The Federal Reserve Bank of New York must require M&T to provide more information.”

M&T agreed in August to buy Paramus-based Hudson City, parent of Hudson City Savings Bank, gaining 97 branches in New Jersey and the No. 4 market share in the state, as well as another 29 offices in downstate New York and nine in Fairfield County, Conn.

The deal adds $43.6 billion in assets, $28 billion in loans and $25 billion in deposits to M&T’s balance sheet, making it the 14th-largest bank in the country.

Besides the Fed, the deal is still subject to approval by the federal Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which oversees national banks, and state officials in New York and New Jersey.

email: jepstein@buffnews.com