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Detroit insights from a numbers man

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.

Harris told mayors and city councils about this. He wrote reports and made recommendations. Mostly, they listened politely. But little changed. Frustrated, he ran for mayor himself, but his campaign went nowhere.

Soon after his term ended as auditor, I sat down with him. He predicted emergency management and possibly bankruptcy would come, when it would, and why. Things muddled on a year or so longer than he predicted, but otherwise, he was on the money. That got my attention.

Four years ago, then-Governor Jennifer Granholm made Harris emergency manager of Benton Harbor on the state’s west side. He was there three years.

There’s no doubt he left that impoverished smaller city in better shape in many ways, adding technology improvements and even a community swimming pool. But he also tangled with city commissioners.

Eventually, they asked the Snyder administration to replace Harris, and a year ago, they did. Typically, Joe Harris refused to sugarcoat it and pretend he was resigning, not being fired. But with his unswerving honesty, he also acknowledged it was probably time for someone new.

Harris went home to Ann Arbor and expected sooner or later the state, or someone, would call to make use of his expertise. But a call has never come. I expected Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr would have called Harris early on to pick his brains, but he never has.

But he still pays attention to Detroit. Wonder what accountants do for fun? Joe Harris has been reviewing comprehensive financial reports for a bunch of cities about the same size as Detroit. He concluded that Detroit could save a lot of money – $150 million a year or more – by streamlining public safety costs, especially benefits and overtime.

He also thinks cross training police and firefighters to do both jobs would make sense in a world of scarcity. He thinks Detroit might have avoided bankruptcy, at least for a while, if these and other inefficiencies had been wrung out of the system, though he does concede that pension costs might eventually have made bankruptcy inevitable.

Lately, Joe Harris has accomplished something different: He just finished reading War and Peace. As a Tolstoy fan, I’m glad he did that for himself. But as a citizen, I wish government would find a new way to make use of his considerable expertise.    

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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