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End of Benton Harbor's financial emergency murky at best

In December Benton Harbor’s emergency manager said the city’s finances we’re looking good enough that he could probably leave sometime this year. But now, he’s not so sure.

The City of Benton Harborwas, for practical purposes, bankrupt. In 2010 former governor Jennifer Granholm appointed an emergency financial manger to clean up the books and prevent damage to state’s credit.

Thursday night, Michigan Deputy Treasurer Roger Fraser visited the city. State Treasurer Andy Dillion was supposed to be at the town hall meeting. But he’s in Detroit, trying to help the city avoid an emergency manager like Benton Harbor has.

Treasury soaks in community’s divisions

Fraser spoke for just five minutes in pretty general terms. He says the state is optimistic about Benton Harbor’s progress.  “But we know too that there's still a lot of work to do,” Fraser said.

For the next hour residents and elected officials laid out the emergency manager situation in Benton Harbor as they see it.

“He’s been operating in a dark room with a flashlight, making all types of decisions. And has thumbed his nose at the residents at large,” City Commissioner Marcus Muhammad said. Others gave an “amen” while nodding their heads in agreement.  

Muhammad says Emergency Manager Joe Harrisdisrespected him and other elected officials from day one; locking them out of their own city office spaces for example.

“He told me I was an outsider,” City Commissioner Mary Alice Adams said, before asking the audience “Am I an outsider?” The audience answered with a resounding “no”.

“He has forgotten who the outsider is and I demand more respect than that because I really have not disrespected Mr. Harris,” Adams said.

Who’s disrespecting whom?

A handful of people did speak up on Harris’ behalf

Resident Corey Bell says it was city commissioners, not Harris, who have been disrespectful; painting Harris as a deceitful dictator and anyone who works with him as traitor. 

“I don’t think (Harris) came down here to be badgered or insulted and called all these names and then all of the sudden we want to be friends. It don’t work like that,” Bell said. 

Fraser interupted disapproving groans from the audience, asking people to please speak one at a time. Bell points out Harris wouldn’t even be in Benton Harbor if elected leaders would’ve kept the finances in order in the first place.

Former City Commissioner Bryan Joseph says it’s “no secret I’m a Harris supporter.” He says he’s been called an “Uncle Tom” and even a “house negro” in public because of his education and cooperation with Harris. He told Fraser he’s sat in meetings with fellow commissioners who now say Harris won’t talk to them.

“Mr. Harris has tried to meet with them and give explanations about what’s going on in the community and he gets badgered. He’s gets beat up. I get beat up. (now Mayor James) Hightowergets beat up,” Joseph said.

Harris: no communication breakdown, period

After the town hall Harris was agitated, if not outraged, at the suggestion that he doesn’t communicate enough.

“The reason we have town halls is for communication,” Harris said.

An independent auditor reviewed the finances at the town hall, and each of the department heads gave a presentation to update the community.

“Did they learn anything tonight?” Harris asks me, almost condescendingly. “It’s really interesting how people can dialog and one of them says there’s no communication. Wait a minute? What’s wrong with this picture? Aren’t we communicating? When we disagree? Maybe communication means agree. Oh now I understand. Now there is no communication,” Harris says, laying on thick sarcasm.

When is the financial emergency in Benton Harbor over?

Harris said late last year he could wrap up his work in Benton Harbor as soon as this summer. When that happens elected leaders would regain authority to run the city.

So Thursday night, I asked Harris if he still thinks he’ll wrap up his work in Benton Harbor this year.

“Oh I have no idea,” Harris said, shaking his head. “The state has not indicated to me one way or another what the future plans are for the EM in Benton Harbor or the future of Joe Harris,” Harris said.

The city still has roughly a two million dollar deficit. And it still isn’t able to make contributions to its employee pension system.

Even if it could eliminate the deficit, pay into the pension system, and fix other factors that qualified the city for a financial emergency; that alone wouldn’t necessarily be enough to declare the financial emergency over.

Michigan’s Deputy Treasurer Roger Fraser couldn’t give Benton Harbor residents specific answers on exactly how a city would emerge from an emergency manager situation. But he says it's important city staff and elected officials are capable of managing the finances “in a way that will keep the city solvent in the foreseeable future,” Fraser said.

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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