James Hightower

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

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’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

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.”

The results of the November eighth election in Benton Harbor stand.

Incumbent Mayor Wilce Cooke lost the election by eight votes. That’s less than one percentage point.

During a recount this week, both Cooke and Mayor elect James Hightower picked up two votes. So the end result remains the same even though the vote count changed slightly.

“We’re not trying to say there’s any hanky-panky going on – although it could be,” Cooke said.

He’s concerned about the absentee voting process; mainly who processed the votes and who may have had access. “There’s some issues we’re pursuing that I’m not able to divulge to you; but that’ll come out eventually,” Cooke said.

The state appointed an emergency manger to take over Benton Harbor’s finances during Cooke’s second term as mayor. The emergency manager expects to have the city’s finances back on track soon. He expects to turn power back over to the new mayor and city commission within the next eight months.

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.

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.