Joe Harris

I have a lot of respect for Joe Harris, a man who knows the numbers, does what needs to be done and doesn’t try to sugarcoat the facts. He isn’t much of a politician, and he knows it. He tells it the way he sees it.

Harris, now 69, was one of the first dozen or so black CPA s in the state of Michigan. He quickly gained professional respect, and a major accounting position at Domino’s Pizza in Ann Arbor. Then, back in 1995, Harris became auditor general of the City of Detroit. That’s an appointed position which lasts 10 years.

Harris very quickly saw vast inefficiencies and people doing things in outmoded ways. “They weren’t bad people,” he told me over lunch last week. They, and their bosses, had never worked anywhere else. There was no incentive to change.

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

BENTON HARBOR, Mich. (AP) - Joseph Harris is out as Benton Harbor's emergency financial manager.

The Local Emergency Financial Assistance Loan Board on Friday voted to appoint Tony Saunders II to replace Harris. Saunders' appointment is effective Feb. 1.

Saunders had been working as an adviser on behalf of state Treasury officials with cash-strapped Highland Park, a Detroit enclave.

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.

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.

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.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

A state appointee has run the cash-strapped city for more than two years. Former Governor Jennifer Granholm appointed Joe Harris the city’s emergency financial manager in March 2010.

Now elected leaders have set a goal for him to leave by December 2013. They hope to get a $7 million emergency loan from the state to help get Benton Harbor out of its “financial emergency”.

Mayor James Hightower says the loan would be “a game changer”.

Julie Weiss

Updated 12:30p.m. - Scott Geerlings with Zeeland, Michigan based Geerlings Development Company says the company bought the parcel for around $102,000.

Benton Harbor’s emergency manager has sold a piece of land that was supposed to be open for public recreation. lot Now a dialysis center is being built on the undeveloped parkland instead.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

When Benton Harbor Emergency Manager Joe Harris took over the City of Benton Harbor two years ago, the city owed money to a bunch of different agencies; the library, the public schools, and the IRS, for example. Harris has made huge progress in paying off that old debt.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

In December Benton Harbor’s emergency manager said the city’s finances we’re looking good enough that he could probably leave sometime this year. But now, he’s not so sure.

The City of Benton Harbor was, for practical purposes, bankrupt. In 2010 former governor Jennifer Granholm appointed an emergency financial manger to clean up the books and prevent damage to state’s credit.

Thursday night, Michigan Deputy Treasurer Roger Fraser visited the city. State Treasurer Andy Dillion was supposed to be at the town hall meeting. But he’s in Detroit, trying to help the city avoid an emergency manager like Benton Harbor has.

Laura Weber / Michigan Public Radio Network

Opponents of Michigan’s emergency manager law called it illegal, unconstitutional, and anti-democratic at a public forum Tuesday night.

Detroit Congressman John Conyers hosted the often-passionate forum on the legality of Public Act 4 in Highland Park.

Conyers is the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary committee. That committee’s staff issued a report finding that Public Act 4 violates the contracts clause of the US Constitution, because it allows emergency managers to breach collective bargaining contracts.

Teryy Hall / Flickr

The group “Michigan Forward” is collecting signatures to repeal the state’s Emergency Manager law.

At last check they we’re up to 180,000.

They only really need about 162,000, but they’re hoping to collect somewhere around 250,000 signatures (I think to prove a point).

And they have time.

They don’t need to turn the signatures in until the end of March to be able to put the repeal question to voters.

Questions, and more questions (I could talk about this all day)

Ever since I realized there was a real possibility voters could have a chance to repeal the Emergency Manager law I’ve been trying to figure out: what in the world would happen in cities and school districts with an Emergency Manager already in place?

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

The State Treasurer’s office is reviewing an independent audit of Benton Harbor’s finances for the 2011 fiscal year. The audit shows the city still spent more money than it made during its first year under a state appointed emergency manager.

Still a lingering operating deficit

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

The City of Benton Harbor’s mayor is trying to start 2012 on the right foot after two years of turmoil under a state-appointed emergency manager. Elected leaders have almost no authority under the state’s emergency manager law. But the new city commission is getting ready to take back local control.

Emergency manager expects to leave in 2012

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

In the last few weeks there’s been a flurry of activity under the state’s new emergency manager law.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

City leaders in Benton Harbor are trying to come together after a turbulent couple of years under a state appointed emergency manager. The emergency manager was appointed to Benton Harbor in 2010 after ten years of deficit spending. 

Mayor-elect James Hightower hosted a workshop Friday to talk about the city’s plan for future.

“You can’t keep looking back, you have to look forward,” Hightower said. “The first step is to bring people together, get them on the mindset of thinking strategic planning, and hear some of the best practices that are happening around the state.”

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

A former long-time auditor for the City of Detroit says he’s not surprised the city is running out of cash. “I was a Detroiter, still am at heart, for 49 years,” Harris said. Joe Harris also served as Detroit’s auditor general from 1995 to 2005. He’s been the state-appointed emergency manager in Benton Harbor since March 2010.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

When a city or a school district in Michigan runs out of money, the state can appoint an emergency manager to take over the responsibilities of locally elected officials. An emergency manger’s powers are broad—made even more so this year – and are designed to help EMs balance the books and return governance to locally elected officials as quickly as possible.

Today, there are four cities and one school district under the control of an emergency manager:

  • Benton Harbor
  • Ecorse
  • Flint
  • Pontiac
  • Detroit Public Schools

This is the second time around for Flint, which had an “emergency financial manager” from 2002-2006. The cities of Detroit and Inkster and Benton Harbor Public Schools could soon be added to this list.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Super close mayoral race

City Commissioner James Hightower narrowly beat the incumbent Mayor Wilce Cooke. Cooke is likely to challenge the results, which came in 681 to 673, a difference of 8 votes. There were two write-in candidates who got a combined 8 votes. The state appointed an emergency manger to take over the city’s finances during Cooke’s second term as mayor.

Water bills in Benton Harbor will jump at least 40-percent in November.

Benton Harbor’s water system has served the city and surrounding Benton Charter, St. Joe Charter, Hagar and Sodus Townships. Earlier this month Benton Township put its own system online.

The township decided to separate from Benton Harbor after years of mismanagement by the city.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

In April 2010 the State of Michigan appointed an emergency financial manager for Benton Harbor to prevent the city from going bankrupt.

The mood has changed and it is not as adversarial as it was a year ago,” Benton Harbor City Commissioner Bryan Joseph said after a town hall meeting Wednesday night.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Benton Harbor’s Emergency Manager says the city will be able to break even this budget year. Last year the city ran more than a million dollar deficit.

Emergency Manger Joe Harris says this year the city could run a $400,000 surplus.

“We’ve turned the corner. You don’t have to keep cutting if you have positive cash flow. Now we just need to expend or invest our money wisely.”

Most of those attending seemed relieved at the news. But following years of mismanagement, many residents remain skeptical.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Elected officials in Benton Harbor are debating the best way to deal with their state-appointed emergency manager. Two Benton Harbor commissioners support the city’s emergency manager, Joe Harris. The remaining seven are united against Harris.

Harris was appointed more than a year ago to fix Benton Harbor’s finances. Since then he’s taken away the commission’s powers to take action or pass resolutions.

These seven commissioners all believe Harris’ power will ultimately prove unconstitutional in court. But they don’t agree on what they should do next.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Emergency Manager Joe Harris signed two orders this week to discourage city commissioners determined to fight his orders.

Benton Harbor continues to make headlines in national news as the city works to stabilize its finances.

Joe Harris was appointed as Emergency Manager last April by former Governor Jennifer Granholm.

Since then, Governor Rick Snyder has signed into law the expansion of an Emergency Mangers' power. Under the law, emergency managers can strip power from locally elected officials and dissolve union contracts.

Joe Harris is the first emergency manager to take advantage of the new law.

Michigan Radio's Jennifer White spoke with Harris. Here's the interview.

During the interview, Harris said he wanted to correct the record - that he didn't strip the elected officials in Benton Harbor of their power. Harris says their power was effectively stripped when the new Emergency Manager bill was signed into law by Governor Snyder:

"In that act... mayors, commissioners, and chief administrative officers of any city that was under the control of an emergency manager lost their authority.

I never stripped them. And so the news report that's all over the country that I stripped them of their authority is incorrect. They had no authority.

The only authority that they can have is the authority that's provided to them, or is given to them by the Emergency Manager."

On April 14th, Harris issued this order.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Elected city leaders in Benton Harbor are calling on Governor Rick Snyder to remove the city’s state-appointed emergency financial manager.

Snyder approved broader powers for emergency financial managers earlier this year.

Benton Harbor’s city commission adopted a resolution (full resolution available here) declaring those new powers unconstitutional.

Thursday Benton Harbor’s emergency financial manager Joe Harris rescinded that and any further resolutions adopted by elected city officials (full order available here), in accordance with an order he issued earlier this year.

Harris stripped power from elected city officials in March. That included the power to adopt resolutions, even non-binding ones.

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