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Benton Harbor adjusts to realities of EFM

Benton Harbor demonstrators march in protest of state-appointed Emergency Financial Manager Joe Harris.
Benton Harbor demonstrators march in protest of state-appointed Emergency Financial Manager Joe Harris.

By Laura Weber & Lindsey Smith, Michigan Public Radio Network


Benton Harbor's Emergency Manager says he hopes to get the city back on solid financial ground by the middle of next year. The Michigan Public Radio Network's Lindsey Smith tells us about Joe Harris' budget plan. People in the community are still trying to figure out where they fit in.

At a town hall meeting in Benton Harbor, about 50 people sit on metal folding chairs assembled in rows inside an office suite.

Pastor Lilton Easterling wishes more people were at this meeting. He's lived in Benton Harbor for more than 40 years and thinks everyone should hear what the city's emergency manager has to say. Easterling says there are a lot of rumors going around.

"And I think the conflict is coming because of lack of information," she says. "And so
if we would get information before we speak, than I think it would solve some of
our problems."

Benton Harbor's Emergency Manager Joe Harris was appointed by former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm last year, to keep their city from going broke.

"You need to give us a chance to right the ship because, we are," he says. "We
are turning."

Harris outlined how the city got so in debt, what he's done so far, and what he hopes to do next. Recent legislation signed by Governor Rick Snyder give him the power to do just about whatever he wants. Harris' plans include improving public safety, communication with residents, and working with the Benton Harbor schools to help the school district with its own financial problems.

"Having our school system turned around is essential, needless to say, of
having our community turned around," he continues.

Benton Harbor Area Schools are included in the 2010 list of Michigan's bottom 5-percent for school performance. Marcus Robinson is President of a non-profit working to change that. He detailed plans for a Benton Harbor Promise that would pay for 2 years of college for all students - similar to the Kalamazoo Promise.

"I'm appreciating that we are stepping up to the challenge of our moment and even though we don't always agree on how we get through these things, we are gonna get through them, we are getting through them and that's a beautiful thing," he says.

Some lawmakers from southeast Michigan and state Capitol insiders speculate that Benton Harbor Area Schools is on the short list to be taken over next by an emergency manager. State Treasurer Andy Dillon says there are about ten cities or school districts that are in very deep financial trouble, but he's not willing to publically speculate who could be next to be taken over by the state.

"I don't anticipate that for anybody," he says.

Though Dillon says it is promising that the city of Benton Harbor seems to be on the right track.

"I see good progress with the city itself," he maintains. "I haven't seen the numbers with the school district."

The district recently closed a couple of schools after presenting a massive turnaround plan to the state. But Joe Harris says for all intents and purposes the school district is currently insolvent. As the Emergency Manager for the city, his authority does not stretch into the school district. But he says the new superintendent appears to be doing everything the state requires to avoid a takeover and an emergency manager for the schools.

Ralph Heibutzki covers Benton Harbor Area Schools for the Harold Palladium newspaper. He says some of the moves to turnaround the schools have not been popular in the community.

"When you close buildings and you move people around, of course not everybody deals
with that gracefully or accepts that well," he says.

But, he says, many people did not like the way things were before, either.

"People always used to complain that there was the status quo that was being kept at all
costs," he says. "So certainly nobody can say that that's necessarily happening now. Change is certainly the order of the day."

And "change" is what appears to be at the root of most hopes and fears floating around Benton Harbor, and throughout the state, as people adjust to the new emergency manager rules.

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