Benton Harbor leaders at odds over proposed income tax; voters decide Tuesday

Nov 4, 2013

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.

“I think this will be the perfect example to let the governor know that we’re not waiting on him to declare or restore local control,” City Commissioner Marcus Muhammad said, “I think this Tuesday we’re going to show that the people are declaring that local control has been restored.”

Supporters of the proposed income tax in Benton Harbor say the city needs the money. They want to invest in roads, sidewalks and other improvements that have been put off for years. 

Not all elected city leaders support the proposal. Mayor James Hightower says the city’s finances are already improving and say people living in Benton Harbor are taxed enough.

Hightower, doesn’t think backers of the proposal are being sincere about why they’ve put it on the ballot.

“I mean you don’t really care about the city,” Hightower said of city leaders who support the proposal, “You care about your own personal conquest and I don’t want to see the citizens of Benton Harbor become collateral damage simply because you want to go after businesses and outsiders.”

Benton Harbor is home to the world’s largest appliance manufacturer, Whirlpool. A company spokesman issued this written statement:

A city occupational tax is a complex vehicle to raise local revenues that requires extensive evaluation as to its fairness and effectiveness as a local government policy. The case for any new tax should include a long term plan that balances the budget, reduces debts, improves operational capacity and strengthens the delivery of efficient and basic city services. A blueprint for success must also include policies that encourage growth by inviting new employers to locate to the community. Such a viable plan is important for the economic growth of the entire Southwest Michigan Region. To date, we do not feel such a case for what will be different and how has been made in the City of Benton Harbor. – Jeff Noel, Corporate VP of Communications and Public Affairs, Whirlpool Corporation

Muhammad says there wasn’t a city income tax in place when businesses and the majority of white residents left the city.

“Now that businesses are coming back we’re just asking them to contribute a penny on the dollar, just as a good corporate or business neighbor. And if that’s too much to give then I think it violates – to whom much is given much is required,” Muhammad said.

Hightower worries the tax will add another barrier to attract and retain businesses. Benton Harbor’s Emergency Manager, Tony Saunders, echoed that concern when he weighed in on the proposal last month.