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Benton Harbor faces consequences after millage rejection

Lindsey Smith
Michigan Radio

The City of Benton Harbor could face major staffing cuts after voters rejected a millage renewal this week. The cash-strapped city has been under the control of a state-appointed emergency financial manager for two years.

“When I heard the news my heart just sank. I didn’t believe it,” Benton Harbor Mayor James Hightower said, calling the rejection “unreal”. The millage helps pay for basic city operations.

Benton Harbor Mayor James Hightower believes voters were misled in part by some elected officials who are against the emergency financial manager.

“There’s so much misrepresentation and misinformation given to them by these commissioners that people don’t know what to believe,” Hightower said.

Those commissioners say Emergency Financial Manager Joe Harris didn’t follow the proper procedure for putting the millage question on the ballot (it was supposed to be on the ballot last November). Commissioner Dennis Knowles says Harris failed to inform people why the renewal was needed.

Knowles Harris should’ve sent the millage question to the city commission for action and a public hearing. He says residents faces higher water bills, high foreclosure rates, and many are on a fixed income, so he’s not that surprised they rejected the millage.

“It was the way that (the renewal) was brought in, the process. For someone who is probably eating very well it probably makes sense to them, and it does. But you talk to those who aren’t eating so well," Knowles said. He says residents are getting tired of leaders not following the rules and are losing faith in the political process.

“You want the emergency manager gone but then you campaign to put us further in a financial dilemma; it’s utterly ridiculous,” Hightower said of Knowles and others against the millage.

The emergency financial manager did not return requests for comment on this story. He told the Herald-Palladiumthe revenue from the millage would equate to about 20 people’s staff with the city. The city now employs about 40 people.

The state treasurer's office says it's working with the manager to figure out if a loan from the state is a possibility.

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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