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Benton Harbor’s emergency financial manager's days in charge appear numbered

Lindsey Smith
Michigan Radio

Former Governor Jennifer Granholm appointed Joe Harris to run Benton Harbor’s dismal finances nearly three years ago.

Then City Commissioner James Hightower supported the takeover when others didn’t. But Hightower, who’s now the city’s mayor, says Harris has become increasingly difficult to work with.

Hightower says he and other elected officials told the state they would support a special assessment fee on all property owners in exchange for six conditions. One of them was that Joe Harris be replaced by the end of January.

“The citizens and the city have to be protected. I think what we did was reasonable. I think that the time that Harris has been here has been longer than what it should have been,” Hightower said.

Hightower says Harris doesn’t communicate regularly with elected officials.

"Nothing personal against Mr. Harris but his management style is one that just does not foster a relationship or growth or build bridges; it actually creates barriers," Hightower said.

Harris declined to comment but told the Herald-Palladium newspapertreasury officials asked him to resign.

"They made a deal and I'm gone," Harris said Tuesday. Harris said he met with state Deputy Treasurer Roger Fraser on Tuesday morning and was told the commission agreed to support a 10-mill special assessment if the state would fire Harris. "I was told that they would want a letter of resignation this week, for my resignation, effective Jan. 31," Harris said. But Harris said he told Fraser, "To give a letter of resignation would imply I'm resigning, and I'm not. You'll just have to let me go."

A treasury spokesman wouldn’t comment on specifics but did say the state is working on a “possible” leadership transition. He would not comment on what he calls a “private meeting” between Harris and Fraser this week.

But Fraser wrote this in a letter to Mayor Hightower earlier this month:

Thank you for your efforts to move along this financial issue in the City of Benton Harbor. With the commitment of you and other members of the City Commission to support the creation of a special assessment district limited to a 10 mil assessment, we in Treasury are committed to addressing the concerns you have enumerated in the attached special assessment letter. Presuming there is positive support for the 10 mil assessment demonstrated at the public hearing scheduled for Monday evening, December 17, we will begin working Tuesday morning, December 18 on fulfilling our part of your requests.

Elected officials voted 7 to 1 to support the 10 mil special assessment to fund public safety operations. The assessment comes after voters rejected a millage renewal in November that represented a major portion of the city’s revenue.

Treasury officials say the state’s Emergency Loan Board will decide Harris’ fate. It’s not clear when his next meeting is.

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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