By Kristin Bien (email@example.com)
8:01 PM EST, December 10, 2010
There have been a lot of questions and even some rumors about how Benton Harbor has managed to end up in the situation it's in. The city is now being run by a state-appointed emergency financial manager because of a nearly $2 million budget deficit. Now, that manager provides some insight into how he says the city got into trouble in the first place.
EFM Joseph Harris says he hasn't found anything illegal. By law, he is required to notify authorities if he were to find anything suspicious. Still, according to Harris and other city leaders, there are major issues with how the city's finances were being handled.
The financial woes in Benton Harbor did not start overnight.
"This is a problem that has been going on for a very long time — of mismanagement and a lack of leadership," said City Commissioner Bryan Joseph.
Harris was appointed by the governor in April to undo decades of financial hardship — he has to balance the budget in Benton Harbor.
"Things are going extremely well," says Harris.
But he says, it hasn't been easy. According to Harris, the person keeping the books before he arrived, the city's finance director, wasn't qualified.
"We had a non accountant running accounting," says Harris.
Harris says, over the past couple years the city had accrued $80,000 to $100,000 in overdraft fees. Not only that, says Harris, Benton Harbor had hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid debt. He found the city owned nearly $500,000 to the IRS. Another $500,000 was owed to vendors and there was about $290,000 in property tax money the city had never distributed to schools and the library.
Harris says the city commission knew this finance director wasn't qualified when she was hired several years ago. And he says, that isn't the only instance of someone running a major city department without the right qualifications. Harris says, decisions were often made by city leaders to hire based on "loyalties." For example: he says for the past 18 years, the city was using a garbage company that charged $144,000 more than anyone else, just because the city had always done business with this company.
"So it starts at the top. And frankly it starts with a commission that appoints a qualified city manager and a city manager that appoints qualified department heads," Harris said.
And there are two commissioners who agree with Harris' assessment. Commissioners James Hightower and Bryan Joseph say mismanagement of funds, hiring people who don't have the proper skills, over spending and lack of good leadership are to blame.
"From my point of view it is just a lack of understanding of what it take to get the job done," Hightower said.
Of course, not everyone agrees.
"Benton harbor came to this period in our history because of a lack of a tax base," said commissioner Eddie Marshall.
Marshall says the city's problems are not because of a lack of leadership. He says the city has endured a cash flow problem for decades. He also denies the claim by Harris that the garbage company chosen by the city commissioners was $144,000 more than anyone else.
"I am saying the sanitation department was getting paid for the services they were providing," Marshall said.
Juanita Henry spoke with WSBT over the phone. She also agreed with Harris but isn't happy with his plans and actions in the city.
WSBT was unable to speak with Mayor Wilce Cooke or city commissioners Dennis Knowles, David Shaw, Marcus Muhammad or Duane Seates. Their city-paid cell phones have been shut off as part of Harris's cutbacks and none of them have provided the city clerk with any contact information.
WSBT had an interview set up with Commissioner Duane Seates on Thursday and he never showed up.
The mayor and commissioners Marcus Muhammad, Juanita Henry, Duane Seats, David Shaw and Eddie Marshall held a news conference Thursday. They said they are unhappy with Harris and called for his removal. They also said they are consulting with attorneys and looking into filing an injunction and lawsuit against Harris.
Hightower and Joseph did not attend that news conference but say this is not the time for a lawsuit. They say, Harris is finally doing what needs to be done in the city, and instead the commissioners should spend their time laying out a strategic plan.
"It is about putting the city back on its feet. It is not about who is in charge or who is the top man. It is about righting the ship and getting it on point so you move forward," Hightower said.
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