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Benton Harbor emergency financial manager: “Citizens have to pay the piper”

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.

“Certainly that’s the least desirable but I will tell you this that unless some money comes from somewhere we can’t afford a police department,” Harris said at a press conference late Monday afternoon.

Harris says he could ask voters to reconsider the operating millage in an election this spring. But that wouldn’t cover revenue lost from this year. And voters could very well reject the millage again.

Or Harris says he may approve a special assessment, a special fee structure on property owners, specifically for public safety. The Michigan Treasury Department says Harris can implement a special assessment under Public Act 72, which is now in place instead of Public Act 4, which voters rejected in the November election. Harris says he could assess as much as 20 mills for the special assessment.


Harris's final option is to ask the state to allow the city to declare Chapter 9 bankruptcy.

“Sooner or later ladies and gentlemen citizens have to pay the piper,” Harris said.

Police guarded Harris’ press conference, keeping a number of residents, elected city leaders, even the Berrien County Sheriff out of the room. He told reporters he wanted to have a conversation about the options and didn’t want commissioners to “hijack” his meeting.

Benton Harbor Mayor James Hightower pushed hard for the millage. He spent his own money to mail flyers to residents asking for their support for the renewal. Hightower has supported Harris in the past. But he says Harris isn’t communicating well enough anymore. The closed door press conference is only the latest example, he said.

“Mr. Harris is the face of Public Act 4. He’s gone as far as he should go in this whole ordeal. We are at a point now where treasury department needs to own that. They can’t let us fail. And I’m hoping that they will not,” Hightower said.

Hightower introduced a resolution at the city commission meeting Monday evening that demands Treasury have “direct involvement” in the plan to “resolve the current crisis”. He says this decision is beyond “anyone’s pay grade here in Benton Harbor”.

The resolution also calls for Harris to consult with the commission on the plan. Harris said at his press conference he would not. And shortly after the meeting concluded, City Manager Roger Lange gave me an order from Harris that was apparently prepared ahead of the meeting that nullified the resolution the city commission passed.

Several residents yelled in frustration at the city commission.

Benton Harbor resident Lea Anna Locey said the vote on the millage speaks for itself. “They said no. They knew what they were saying. They said it loud and clear. They didn’t make any mistakes,” Locey said.

“We don’t need to be paying no extra taxes on nothing. Cause we ain’t getting nothing for our taxes anyway,” Benton Harbor resident Joiesette Hilliard said. She wondered why top administrators can't take a pay cut.

Treasury officials say they are in communication with Harris about “appropriate steps” for Benton Harbor. They are awaiting “good data” on the city’s latest financial position before an emergency loan board will decide on whether to loan Benton Harbor $3 million to restructure its debt.  

Harris says he’ll decide which of the four options he’ll pursue within a week.

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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