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Emergency manager advice: “Don’t think that you have the answers”

Joe Harris in Benton Harbor City Hall in April 2011.
Lindsey Smith
Michigan Radio
Joe Harris in Benton Harbor City Hall in April 2011.

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

Emergency managers now run 4 cities (Benton HarborFlintPontiacand Ecorse) and 1 school district (Detroit Public Schools). The state is in the process of reviewing finances of at least 2 other school districts (Highland Park Public Schools and Muskegon Heights Public Schools) and 2 other cities (Detroitand Inkster.)

Benton Harbor Area Schools was under a 30-day review that found "probable financial stress", but the state decided against any further reviews because of "major steps" the district took in December to cut its budget. 

Benton Harbor’s Emergency Manager Joe Harris was the first to really exercise power under Michigan’s stronger emergency manager law. He stripped most powers from the city’s elected officialslast April.

Harris says emergency managers need to forget what they think they know and look for experts who know better.  “Don’t’ expect to get the answers from the people that came up through the system,” Harris said. 

Harris says emergency managers need to take a fresh look at major expenses. In the case of cities, that’s usually police, fire, public works and transportation departments. “You’re not going to solve your problems by cutting the credit cards for city officials," Harris said. "That’s a piece of it, but that ain’t going to get you out of the hole."

Harris says managers have to start with a clean slate, lay out objectives, and the best plan to achieve them. "You need the outside consultants. I guarantee you they know a better way," Harris said. 

This year Harris balanced Benton Harbor’s operating budget, in large part by combining police and fire into a single public safety department. Harris says that will save the city $1.3 million a year.

He expects to turn power back over to elected leaders in as few as three months. 

Lindsey Smith is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently leading the station's Amplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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