People in Benton Harbor want to save public safety department, but demand more info first

Dec 4, 2012

All the metal folding chairs in the building still weren't enough for the hundreds of residents who showed up at Tuesday night's public hearing.

Benton Harbor’s Emergency Financial Manager Joe Harris says officials from the state treasury department will ultimately decide if city residents will pay a special fee to save its police and fire departments. The city lost 20-percent of its income after voters rejected a millage last month.

Benton Harbor Public Safety Captain Dan McGinnis made the case for the fee. He pointed to a major drop in violent crime this year and cost savings from combining the police and fire departments.

“I’ll leave you with this; no one knows Benton Harbor’s streets like we do. Bottom line, no one knows,” McGinnis said.

One by one dozens of residents and business owners expressed their thoughts on the proposal. But most lacked clear information about exactly how much and how long the assessment was for and why other options weren’t presented.

The city could contract with Berrien County for police protection, but the undersheriff told the crowd that's “not a viable option”.

Maurice Broadway urged the manager to let the people vote on the fee.

“I’m game for paying it but don’t tell me you’re gonna make me. If I vote on it and agree with it let it roll. If we vote on it and it don’t agree you’ve got to leave us alone. If we broke, we broke,” he said.

“All of us want the police and fire departments. That is not the issue,” Sharon Henderson said. The typically a calm city commissioner told the gathering she’s upset about a lack of transparency from Harris about the city’s options.

“We haven’t been given the exact amount of how much it’s going to cost. How would you like to pay for something you don’t know how long it’s going to be for and how much it’s going to cost?” she asked in frustration.

Harris hasn’t said exactly how much he’d charge property owners. But he says he wouldn’t charge more than 15 mills total.

Harris plans to address citizen’s questions in a letter that will go out next week. He’ll hold another hearing December 17th. He wants to make a decision by the 19th.