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
For at least ten years elected leaders spent more money than the city made. Benton Harbor owed money to its pension fund, its suppliers, the library and the IRS just to name a few.
A state review team saw that eventually that spending and borrowing would likely lead to bankruptcy. One city’s bankruptcy would cause major damage to the state’s credit rating.
Saginaw City Manager Darnell Earley was part of the team that determined in the spring of 2010 that Benton Harbor needed an emergency financial manager. He points out 15 different managers ran the city over 20 years. “What happens as a results of that is that things continue to get worse as opposed to getting better,” Earley said, “The stability is key to making sure that things get done.”
Emergency Manager Joe Harris has been running Benton Harbor for almost two years. This fiscal year he expects to balance the city’s budget. Harris has paid back vendors and the IRS. He’s combined Benton Harbor’s Police and Fire Departments. He has new contracts in place for most of the city’s workers. For the past couple of months Harris has been talking about leaving.
“I believe that 3 or 4 months from now my tour will be over,” Harrid told a group of reporters after his latest monthly town hall meeting in December. “But it could be through the end of the fiscal year for all I know,” Harris said.
State law only requires Harris to “adopt and implement” a two-year budget with employee contracts. Then Harris could declare the financial emergency over if the state treasurer agrees.
Mayor Hightower: “The first step is to bring people together”
Elected officials don’t know exactly when or how Harris will leave, but they’re getting ready anyway.
Benton Harbor’s new mayor James Hightower’s mission of bringing city leaders together began with breakfast. Bacon, eggs and cheese kicked off a recent day-long city commission retreat at Benton Harbor’s only remaining sit-down restaurant; appropriately named The Ideal Place.
They listened to hours of lectures on the importance of strategic planning and setting goals. They got a lot of advice from Darnell Earley.
“You can do one of two things,” Earley told the group, “You can take and build on the successes working as a team. Or you can do like they did in Flint.”
Flint is under the control of an emergency manager for the second time in the last 10 years. A state review team found city leaders were not following plans to eliminate the city’s deficit and were frequently short of cash.
Benton Harbor City Commissioner Juanita Henry says no one wants to see that happen here. “I tell them to pray and give time, a little time and everything will be open. We’ve got a new set of commissioners thank God. And it’s a new day in Benton Harbor,” Henry said.
Challenges after the emergency manager leaves
Benton Harbor City Commissioner Marcus Muhammad and others think a team of people to help with the transition of power is important to avoid another state takeover – like what’s happened in Flint.
"This will afford us the knowledge and the opportunity to avoid some of those pitfalls and put preventive measures in place so that we don’t have to return to an undemocratic form of government,” Muhammad said.
The state is interested in a transition team too. The senate passed a bill last month that would clarify how and when an emergency manager leaves a city and would set up a transition team. The state treasurer supports the bill too. It’s unclear if the bill will become law before Emergency Manager Joe Harris declares Benton Harbor’s immediate financial emergency is over.
Even if the emergency manager does leave sometime this year residents still face some of the same problems they have for decades. The average resident makes around $10,000 a year. Benton Harbor High School has a graduation rate below 70%. (The school district managed to avoid further state review even though a team found “probable financial stress”.) Race relations between the city and neighboring St. Joseph are still tense.
With all that going on, Mayor Hightower knows it’ll be tough for elected leaders to stay focused on the budget. “I hope that the community will put pressure on individuals. It’s kind of hard; it’s really very difficult to push against progress, positive progress. So that’s my hope,” Hightower said.
After decades of mismanagement it’s going to take a while for residents and neighboring communities to trust elected leaders in Benton Harbor.
“The residents want to see us united. They’re tired of politics as usual,” said an energized 23-year-old Trenton Bowens. Bowens was elected Benton Harbor City Commissioner last November. “They lost confidence that’s one thing I will say. They’ve been turned off by the actions of our government. I think we’re going to unite and we’re going to be the shining star of southwest Michigan,” Owens said with a smile.
“I think that we can do it. I know we can do it,” Juanita Henry said, nodding her head. “And I know that the new commissioners are ready to work together.”
An earlier version of this article was changed to fix an error.