Keith Sliter admits a state takeover is not his ideal choice to fix what ails this southwest Michigan city's finances, then acknowledges it may be the best available option.
Even after watching union members and other protesters at a recent parade rail against the state law that allowed it to happen, Sliter figures the sweeping state control might be needed to pull Benton Harbor out of its financial mess.
The city nestled on the shores of Lake Michigan last month became the epicenter in a debate over how much power states should wield over financially struggling cities when a state-appointed emergency manager stripped decision-making authority from the city's elected officials. Now many local residents, including some resigned to the notion that chronic financial mismanagement has left them reliant on outside help, hope their interests don't get lost in the political battle.
"I'm not sure Benton Harbor's issues and the issues of the demonstrators are the same issues," said Sliter, a 56-year-old former paramedic. "I think they don't understand what's going on in Benton Harbor. I'm not totally for emergency managers in all situations, but with the situation going on in Benton Harbor, it's much needed."
For some in the mostly black city of roughly 10,000 people _ where nearly half are estimated to live in poverty and a fifth of the population has been lost since 1990 _ it's like picking poison: Accept an emergency manager who now has the authority to make elected leaders virtually powerless, or back those same elected leaders who couldn't fix those financial problems in the first place.
Michigan has for years used a state-appointed emergency manager system when troubled cities and schools ran aground financially. Benton Harbor's emergency manager, Joseph Harris, was appointed by former Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm more than a year ago. But the dynamics changed this year when a Republican-backed state law boosted the authority of emergency managers.
Republican Gov. Rick Snyder signed that new law _ and was later hounded by union members from Flint, Lansing, Traverse City and other towns when he served this month as grand marshal at an annual spring parade that ends in downtown Benton Harbor.
Critics call the law an anti-democratic attack on voters' rights, making it easier for corporate interests to have their way in the city. Labor leaders worry the expanded emergency manager powers might next be used to unilaterally modify or toss out union contracts negotiated with public employees. Some labor activists see the law as Michigan's way to attack collective bargaining and public employees similar to what's been attempted in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana.
The cities of Ecorse and Pontiac, along with the Detroit public school system, also have with emergency managers in place. Detroit Mayor Dave Bing warned recently that a financial manager could be appointed if radical changes aren't made to improve the city's finances. The mayor of Jackson has asked the state to review the city's finances and the city of Flint is considering doing the same.
Saying the law goes too far, activists ranging from Rev. Jesse Jackson to top United Auto Workers officials have rallied in Benton Harbor in hopes of overturning it or preventing its use in other places.
"It happens to be Benton Harbor today," said Gerald Kariem, a UAW regional director from west Michigan. "It could be another city tomorrow. This is about rights being taken away from American citizens."
Benton Harbor city commissioner Dennis Knowles said his "biggest fear is there's no representation or voice for the people."
Supporters say the new law gives emergency managers necessary tools to clean up heaping financial messes that weren't adequately addressed by local leaders. Other features aim to get the state involved earlier, so crisis situations like the one in Benton Harbor can be avoided.
A state review ordered by Granholm found problems years in the making that city leaders didn't have a "satisfactory" plan to fix. It found Benton Harbor wasn't getting federal income taxes withheld from city employees to the Internal Revenue Service on time and was late distributing property taxes collected for other local government units. The city wasn't meeting minimum contribution requirements to retirement funds and was rolling up large budget deficits.
City commissioner Bryan Joseph supports Harris and his newly vested powers, putting him in the minority among Benton Harbor's elected leaders. Joseph said the commission had chances to make necessary changes to the city's finances, but whiffed.
"He had to be brought in," Joseph said of the Harris appointment. "This had to happen."
The 67-year-old Harris, who previously worked as Detroit's auditor general and chief financial officer, will earn $132,000 annually to clean up Benton Harbor's financial mess. He's already cut city staff, saved money by overhauling a rubbish hauling contract and is pushing ahead with plans with to merge police and fire departments into a single, cross-trained unit.
Harris said his job is temporary and he could be gone by mid-2012, but noted some of the city's elected leaders have been unwilling to work with him. At a town hall meeting he hosted last month aimed at explaining the state's emergency financial manager law and why it's being used in Benton Harbor, no protesters showed up and most of the criticism came from elected city leaders who'd recently been stripped of power.
"Once I leave here, if I come back a year or two from now, you won't look at me cross-eyed," Harris told his town hall audience. "Hopefully you're going to say, `I really appreciate what you did'."
A recent poll of 400 registered voters from Benton Harbor and three surrounding municipalities found 60 percent of respondents thought the emergency manager would better balance the city's budget deficit, compared to 14 percent who thought the city commission and mayor would do a better job. The rest of the respondents said they either didn't know or didn't like either option.
The poll released in late April by Glengariff Group Inc. had a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.
Linda Bolton, who lives in nearby Benton Township and works at a bank in the city, said she is willing to give Harris a chance.
"With the knowledge we have that what he's doing needs to be done, if we accept it and rally together and work with him and not against him, we can see progress," Bolton said. "I think with the way the city is now, there's no choice but to work with him."