Benton Harbor

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

For years, kids have been leaving Benton Harbor schools in droves.

Meanwhile, per-pupil money from the state has been flat. 

Now the school district has signed a consent agreement with the state to wipe out a $15 million deficit.

Ask school board member Joseph Taylor how Benton Harbor schools got here, and he says, simple:

"It's what's called debt. You know, we had an $18 million deficit. We knocked it down some, but the state only gives you so much time. And when that time ran out, we had to consider other options."

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

The Benton Harbor Board of Education may take a step this evening toward getting its financial house in order. 

Benton Harbor Area Schools faces a $15 million deficit.

Last month, a state panel determined the school district is in a "financial emergency."

Monday, the state Treasury department announced that an agreement has been crafted that will “restore financial stability to Benton Harbor Area Schools as quickly and efficiently as possible.”

As part of the agreement, a consultant will assist district leaders in implementing the plan.

Sharon Drummond / Flickr

A state loan board will choose between two competing proposals to give a short-term bridge loan to the Detroit Public Schools. One is from the district’s emergency manager. The other is an alternative proposed by the school board.

The district is under the control of an emergency manager while it digs out of a deficit. The district’s teachers are opposing a plan to close 24 schools and cut their pay by 10%. This would be the second round of pay cuts for Detroit teachers.

Gov. Rick Snyder says the district’s troubles require tough choices.

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

LANSING – Michigan is helping provide lower interest rates to first-time homebuyers in eight cities.

About 300 individual or families in Detroit, Grand Rapids, Flint, Pontiac, Saginaw, Battle Creek, Benton Harbor, and Jackson can take advantage of a program announced Friday.

First-time homebuyers who meet eligibility requirements can get a 3.125% mortgage interest rate without down payment assistance. If they need help with their down payment, the interest rate is 3.625%.

Gov. Rick Snyder says he wants to increase home sales in five cities hit hard by blight and three other cities needing a boost.

Michigan State Housing Development Authority Executive Director Scott Woosley says most of Michigan's real estate market has bounced back, but some areas are still experiencing significant sales declines.

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The city of Benton Harbor is no longer in a financial emergency. Gov. Snyder today announced the appointment of a Receivership Transition Advisory Board.

Behind the turnaround is Benton Harbor’s former emergency manager, Tony Saunders II. He spoke with the host of All Thing Considered, Jennifer White.


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Gov. Rick Snyder says Benton Harbor's financial emergency is over.

It's been four years since the state appointed an emergency manager to run the city's finances. 

Snyder attributes Benton Harbor's success, in part, to the new emergency manager law he signed after voters repealed a former version. The law gives managers broad powers to fix the finances of the cities and school districts. 

Snyder also gives Benton Harbor's most recent emergency manager credit for building trust in the community.

Listen to the audio above.  

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Benton Harbor’s emergency manager is planning his exit. That’s after the state agreed to loan the city more than $2 million.

When Benton Harbor officially began its financial emergency, Jennifer Granholm was the governor. During the last four years, the city has operated under three different versions of Michigan’s emergency manager law. That’s how long it’s been.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Elected leaders in Benton Harbor are rejecting the emergency manager’s plan to take on debt to pay down the city’s deficit.

Benton Harbor has been under state control for three years. It's cut its deficit by a third; from $3.4 million in 2010 to $1.2 million, according to the latest audit.

Mercedes Mejia/Michigan Radio

Benton Harbor residents rejected the idea of an income tax in their community. The vote was 667 opposed and 543 in favor. The city has long struggled with budget problems and is under a state-appointed emergency manager.

Fox 28 reports on the reaction from Benton Harbor's Mayor:

Mayor James Hightower says he's elated that the tax failed.

Commissioner Trenton Bowens says his camp is not giving up, they'll work to get the proposal back on the ballot in May.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

A southwest Michigan city under state control will decide whether to impose a new city income tax in Tuesday's election. An emergency manager has been running Benton Harbor since March 2010.

If the proposal passes, people who live or work in Benton Harbor will pay a small percentage of their income to the city government. More than 20 other Michigan cities have an income tax.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Benton Harbor Emergency Manager Tony Saunders is breaking months of silence on a proposed city income tax. Saunders says he has some concerns about the proposal.

“I want to make sure we have a strong climate for business investment here. Also, you know this is one of the poorest cities in Michigan, so the last thing I want to see is our citizens being taxed once again when they’re already struggling to make ends meet,” Saunders said.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Elected leaders in Benton Harbor have a lot more convincing to do if they want to get a city-wide income tax on the November ballot.

Supporters of the income tax proposal aren’t sure exactly what the rate would be or how the money would be spent. They have general ideas, but that ambiguity makes business owners nervous.

“If they really want to do something like this they really have to have the trust of the citizenry and the business community that they will, in fact, spend the dollars that they earn in the way in which they say that they’ll spend them,” said Pat Moody, Executive Director of the Cornerstone Chamber of Commerce.  

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

The city of Benton Harbor has been under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager for more than three years. Now some elected leaders in the state’s poorest city are proposing a new way to raise revenue.

Benton Harbor has done a lot to try to get out of debt; laid off workers, combined the police and fire departments, restructured its loans. But City Commissioner Trenton Bowens is convinced the city of roughly 10,000 people needs a citywide income tax.

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State Supreme Court Justice faces sentencing

Former Michigan Supreme Court Justice Diane Hathaway is due in court today to be sentenced for fraud. Hathaway was forced to resign in January when she pleaded guilty to a scheme to cheat the bank by hiding assets.  Hathaway’s attorney is asking that she be allowed to perform community service and pay thousands of dollars in fines; however, federal prosecutors have asked for prison time of 12 to 18 months. Michigan Radio's Rick Pluta has more.

Benton Harbor EM believes deficit will be eliminated in one year

Tony Saunders, the emergency manager of Benton Harbor, says elected leaders are likely to regain control within a year when the city's structural deficit will be eliminated. Michigan Radio’s Lindsey Smith reports Benton Harbor’s new emergency manager says he’s cut more than a million dollars from the budget in just three months.

Senator Debbie Stabenow's farm bill is headed to the senate

Senator Debbie Stabenow will rally in West Michigan this week. She's trying to get farmers to pressure lawmakers to pass her new farm bill to funds crop insurance programs and research to help fight invasive insects. Last year the Senate passed the farm bill but it died in the House. The Senate is expected to vote on the farm bill early next month.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Benton Harbor’s new emergency manager says the city is on track to eliminate its structural deficit within a year. The city's finances have been under state control for more than three years.

Emergency Manager Tony Saunders started in February after the state ended the previous manager's contract at the city commission’s request.

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Michigan's local election results

  • Dane Slater was re-elected Mayor of Troy. He was appointed after former Mayor Janice Daniels was recalled. Slater defeated primary opponent Marty Knollenberg.
  • Citizens in Benton Harbor voted overwhelmingly to raise property taxes to support city services. The city is running in the red. The millage represents about 20 percent of the city’s income.

State of disaster declared in Michigan

"Governor Rick Snyder has declared a state of disaster across much of Michigan due to storm- and flood-related damage last month. The proclamation makes state resources available to help the weather-stricken areas. The disaster proclamation covers the cities of Grand Rapids and Ionia in west Michigan, and 19 counties in the western Upper Peninsula, northern lower Michigan and southwest Michigan," Rick Pluta reports.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

People in Benton Harbor voted overwhelmingly to raise property taxes to support city services in Tuesday’s election.

That’s after voters rejected a similar set of proposals last November. The city is already running in the red and the millage represents around 20-percent of the city’s income.

“You just can’t see me dancing in the streets on the radio,” Mayor James Hightower said over the phone Tuesday night, “It’s a great day in Benton Harbor.”

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In this week in Michigan politics, Jack Lessenberry and Christina Shockley discuss the likelihood of Michigan having a part time legislature, what will happen to former Supreme Court Justice Diane Hathaway and who is likely to replace her. Lessenberry and Shockley also talk about the 26-year-old who will soon be the emergency manager for Benton Harbor.

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Governor Snyder to listen for finance issues in Presidential inauguration

"Governor Rick Snyder says he’ll be listening for plans to fix the nation’s finances in President Obama’s second inaugural address today. He says bickering in Washington about the fiscal cliff and the debt ceiling are delaying a more-robust economic recovery," Rick Pluta reports.

Changes in Michigan income taxes

"Michigan income tax returns for 20-12 will look a lot different than last year. That's because a slew of deductions and credits have disappeared. Many retirees will have to pay taxes on their pensions. The state's homestead property tax credit will go away for many people. And there won't be a credit for college and tuition fees anymore," Rina Miller reports.

A 26-year-old to replace Benton Harbor emergency manager

"The incoming emergency financial manager for the City of Benton Harbor doesn’t start until February First, but he’s already working hard to create new relationships and get a complete picture of the city’s finances.  Tony Saunders is 26. But he says people should consider his experience working in Detroit and Highland Park, not his age. Saunders replaces outgoing emergency manager Joe Harris," Lindsey Smith reports.

Benton Harbor’s incoming emergency financial manager says he’ll work quickly on a plan to put the city in the black.

Tony Saunders II says no kid aspires to grow up to be an emergency financial manager, but he’s excited about the opportunity. He’s 26-years old, expecting his first child in April. But he says people should consider his experience working in Detroit and Highland Park, not his age.

“I’m not worried about my age and I don’t think others will once they have a chance to meet me and see the pace that I’m willing to work at,” Saunders said.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Benton Harbor Emergency Manager Joe Harris says he’s proud of his accomplishments in his nearly three years running the city. Harris said it was the most exciting job he’s ever had, describing his departure as “bittersweet."

As he entered his press conference Wednesday afternoon, Harris flashed a big smile at the TV cameras and reporters, some city staff and a few elected leaders. He played “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone,” a fitting Sammy Davis Jr. version of the tune as he walked into the room.

“Don’t say a mumbling word about me when I’m gone,” Harris sang, tapping his foot along with the beat.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

As expected, the state has replaced Benton Harbor’s emergency manager. Joe Harris has served as Benton Harbor’s emergency manager since former Governor Jennifer Granholm appointed him in March 2010. His contract expires January 31st.

Harris made progress in cutting the city’s deficit, but has been blamed for keeping the community in the dark about his decisions recently. Some of the city’s elected officials asked the state to replace Harris last month. Although state officials are not acknowledging that’s the reason, a letter from Deputy Treasurer Roger Fraser explains the state would work to fulfill the request.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Former Governor Jennifer Granholm appointed Joe Harris to run Benton Harbor’s dismal finances nearly three years ago.

Then City Commissioner James Hightower supported the takeover when others didn’t. But Hightower, who’s now the city’s mayor, says Harris has become increasingly difficult to work with.

Hightower says he and other elected officials told the state they would support a special assessment fee on all property owners in exchange for six conditions. One of them was that Joe Harris be replaced by the end of January.

Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

The impact of economic problems are often likened to waves. And the waves of Michigan's economic crisis are still rolling up onto the shores in cities around the state.

The Detroit News looked at the numbers of police cuts and how communities react to these cuts.

The data from the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards show that since 2003, the state has lost more than 2,000 police positions in total.

Communities react to the cuts by completely disbanding their departments, as Pontiac did, or by trying to raise more revenue.

But as the events in the struggling city of Benton Harbor show, residents are not always willing to tax themselves more to keep their police departments intact.

From the Detroit News:

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

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.

BENTON HARBOR, Mich. (AP) - Emergency financial manager Joe Harris says he plans to hold public hearings in Benton Harbor on whether a special assessment should replace an expired public safety millage.

Harris says the city no longer has the money to operate its own police department and that hearings are expected over the next few weeks to get public input on the issue.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Benton Harbor Emergency Financial Manager Joe Harris will consider charging property owners a special fee to pay for the city’s police department. The decision comes two weeks after voters rejected a millage renewal worth 20-percent of the city’s income.

At a press conference earlier this week, Harris outlined four rather dismal options; including eliminating the police department or asking the state to just allow Benton Harbor to declare bankruptcy.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Two weeks after voters in Benton Harbor rejected a millage renewal that represents about 20-percent of the city’s revenue, the city’s emergency financial manager is laying out a few grim options.

EFM Joe Harris says one option is eliminating the police force and contracting public safety through the Berrien County Sheriff's Department; similar to what the City of Pontiac did recently.

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Schuette says Blues overhaul not enough to protect seniors

State Attourney General says the overhaul of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan needs more safeguards in order to protect seniors. The Detroit news reports,

Under legislation sought by Gov. Rick Snyder, the Blues could dramatically reduce its $200 million annual subsidy of the Medicare supplemental insurance by 2016, when a rate freeze Schuette negotiated expires.

After that, the Blues would contribute as little as $15 million annually to a new state-run nonprofit health care foundation for Medigap coverage made available only to Medicare recipients who prove a financial need, Schuette said.

Blue Cross says 70 percent of the 210,000 seniors receiving Medigap insurance would fail a means test to show a financial need for the subsidy, Michigan Insurance Commissioner Kevin Clinton said.

Benton Harbor considers eliminating police force to cut costs

"Two weeks after voters in Benton Harbor rejected a millage renewal, the city’s emergency financial manager is laying out a few grim options. Joe Harris told reporters Monday afternoon one option is eliminating the police force. The millage would’ve raised a little more than a million dollars this year alone. That represents twenty-percent of Benton Harbor’s yearly revenue," Lindsey Smith reports.

University of Maryland added to "Big Ten"

"The Big Ten athletic conference added the University of Maryland to its roster Monday. Rutgers University is expected to announce its plans to join the conference today. That will bring the total number of schools in the conference to 14, and is likely to mean big increases in revenues for the universities as well as the conference," Chris Zollars reports.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

The City of Benton Harbor could face major staffing cuts after voters rejected a millage renewal this week. The cash-strapped city has been under the control of a state-appointed emergency financial manager for two years.

“When I heard the news my heart just sank. I didn’t believe it,” Benton Harbor Mayor James Hightower said, calling the rejection “unreal”. The millage helps pay for basic city operations.

Benton Harbor Mayor James Hightower believes voters were misled in part by some elected officials who are against the emergency financial manager.

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