Benton Harbor, Emergency Managers, Joe Harris — December 15, 2011 at 10:32 am

Emergency Manager Joe Harris: “Benton Harbor has been a joy”


Back in April, I released exclusive audio of Benton Harbor Emergency Manager Joe Harris audaciously talking about how he had taken over the town and was now in complete control.

The EFM order, an “order” or directive, has the force of law. It is the same as a resolution or an ordinance so you’re running the city. You are the mayor. You are the Commission. You have taken over from them so just in case you’re wondering why they don’t like you too much. You’ve taken that authority away from them and they will challenge you every step of the way and they will try to use the community, try to get the community against you. By the way, I’m having a town hall meeting tonight at six o’clock and we’re going to talk about public safety and we have to keep the community aware of what’s going on. I have a newsletter that I get out every two or three weeks. We’ve got that because we can’t get it out through the commission meetings. They’re not going to let me talk and they’re going to berate me at the commission meetings so I don’t attend them.

There was a comment made earlier, and just for your information, the ONLY place in the Act that requires that you do something in consultation with the Commission is when you prepare your annual financial report. You don’t have to do ANYTHING with these guys. And, I would love to, but I know — I know the individuals and I know what their motives are and the fact of the matter is anything I do they’re going to try to undermine me. So the fact of the matter is, the City Manager is now gone — I am the City Manager. I replaced the Finance Director. So I’m the Finance Director and the City Manager. I am the Mayor and I am the Commission and I don’t need them. All I need is the expertise. And that’s why Mario is providing Human Resources and payroll for me. I’ve got Plante & Moran helping with the Accounting. I’ve got Miller Canfield working with us on the labor issues, with real estate, with regard to — really P.A. 72 issues — “What can I do, what can’t I do?” — Understanding how far I can go before I’ve crossed the line.

So, I’ve laid off twenty-five people. I’ve laid off nine police officers. I’ve laid off four fireman. I’ve haven’t’ done that yet but this Friday — after the townhall meeting. Oh, they know it’s comin’! They know it’s comin’! And I’ve laid off four EPW — I had nine major equipment or heavy equipment operators but only five pieces of heavy equipment. So, I laid off four EPW workers. I laid off Human Resources and payroll because we outsourced that. My assessor retired so we didn’t replace him.

But, long story short, besides the…one hundred and fifty thousand dollars from the rubbish contract — one and half million dollars — take those twenty-five people and just say an average compensation, total compensation of sixty thousand — You’ve got one and half million there. So, I lost two million dollars I’ve pretty much offset that already. Because I’ve already, I saved a hundred thousand dollars on insurance, four hundred fifty thousand, put it out for bid, three hundred and fifty-six thousand this year. The rubbish, the telephone — AT&T just would not cooperate. That’s okay, they’ve got competition so Quest is now in providing the telephone service.

So, I just wanted to wind up by just giving you some things that … and, by the way, you’ve already heard all of this but I can’t over-emphasize the fact that you need to read the charter, you need to read the collective bargaining agreements — the CBA. You’ve gotta know what you can do and what you can’t do. And I found so many holes in the fire — the police is tight — in the fire collective bargaining agreement, they don’t have a leg to stand on. The fact of the matter is we’ve got them where we want ’em!

If you watched The Rachel Maddow show segment last week that featured this blog and the Emergency Manager story (video HERE), you heard part of this clip. It shows a level of audacity and, I would claim, tone-deafness on the part of Harris. While all of what he says may be true, his near glee at the reality makes him seem callous and uncaring about the perception this gives.

Well, he is back at again this week.

“The governor and the treasurer have to make a decision and I sure as heck do not want to go on record as saying ‘Joe Harris wants that job’ [of EM for Detroit]. There’s no way that I would even want that out there because it just creates controversy. I like going in and solving problems. And (Benton Harbor) has been a joy because I’ve had the freedom to come in and make the changes needed.

A joy? Really Mr. Harris? A joy? Well, we’re all so glad you’re enjoying yourself so much. But, keep this in mind: when you leave Benton Harbor, which seems imminent, none of the things that brought that small city to the financial catastrophe you were brought in to solve will be fixed. There will still be crushing poverty. There will still be a broken and broke education system. There will still be a dedicated effort to gentrify Benton Harbor by wealthy developers and the Whirlpool corporation; an effort to rid the town of the poor people so that it can be recreated in the image of its wealthier and whiter sister city St. Joseph. And there will still be a profound lack of leadership in the City that is qualified to turn any of that around. It’s hard to bring qualified people up through the ranks when their opportunities are so scarce.

I know you will pat yourself on the back for balancing the books and, make no mistake, that’s an important first step. But will you still be joyful when Benton Harbor goes right back to where it was when you came on the scene because the systemic problems that created the crisis are still there?

You may be a master at outsourcing and budget trimming. But what you know about public relations and developing effective and helpful relationships could fit in a thimble. I think you might honestly be the only person who is experiencing joy in Benton Harbor at the moment.

Adding: I wonder how many Benton Harborites have been thrown off the welfare rolls in Michigan right before the holiday due to the newly-passed law by Republicans. Joy!

Image credit: Chris Savage/Eclectablog