BENTON HARBOR, Mich. – Some say it's helping Benton Harbor out of a mess created by its own elected leaders, but people who are against Michigan’s Emergency Financial Manager law – also called Public Act 4 – say the city shouldn't need a state appointed outsider to keep it from going bankrupt.
But voters have the choice Tuesday – whether they want the EFMs to have as much say moving forward.
On the books in Michigan since 1988, the EFM law isn’t new. But through the years, changes to the language have given the Emergency Financial Managers more power.
Joseph Harris came to Benton Harbor in April 2010 when the city couldn’t pay its bills and was on the verge of bankruptcy. Then in 2011, Public Act 4 was enacted, giving Harris even more power than before.
“It was rather difficult,” said Benton Harbor Mayor James Hightower.
Since then, Hightower admits Harris has made a difference. One example – he saved $800,000 a year by merging the police and fire departments into a Public Safety Department.
“Benton Harbor's been the poster child for the law and I just think that there should be better cooperation between the city officials and the state,” Hightower told WSBT.
The question everyone in Michigan will see on their ballots Tuesday is how much power do they want EFMs to have and should they be able to strip city commissioners of all power and take full control of the city’s finances?
“I think it’s a good law,” said Jim Cantania, who used to live in Benton Harbor and has since served in government positions in other local municipalities. “I don’t think anyone is in there to come in and take over their government per se, but if you're in trouble, you should be glad someone in there is trying to help you.”
But not everyone agrees. A recent Detroit Free Press/WXYZ-TV poll showed 43% of voters plan to vote "no" and another 35% intend to vote in favor of it. Still another 18% said they were undecided.
Those opposed to the law say it goes against the Democratic process that elected leaders should run the city, not appointed ones.
If the proposal passes, Benton Harbor will still have an EFM, but that financial manager would have fewer powers than allowed under Public Act 4.
Benton Harbor City Commissioners recently decided in a 5 to 4 vote their goal is for the city to have full control of its finances by December 2013. But, as Mayor Hightower pointed out, that means they need to start working with Harris rather than against him.
Harris recently asked Michigan’s Treasury Department for a $3 million emergency loan, but the state hasn’t approved it yet.