The Craig Fahle Show

Former Benton Harbor EM Joe Harris On Taking Action For Lasting Change

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Photo courtesy of Michigan Radio

Joe Harris is the former Detroit Auditor General and EM for Benton Harbor. As Detroit deals with its bankruptcy, WDET’s bankruptcy reporter and Next Chapter Detroit blogger Sandra Svoboda asked Harris for his perspective on Detroit.

Sandra begins by asking Harris why he thinks Detroit went bankrupt:

“It all starts with the mayors, the mayors have to pay attention to their own forecast,” says Harris. He believes that everything in Detroit started to unravel around the time former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer's term ended. It was after that, Detroit’s mayors started to borrow.

When Harris reflects on his time as Auditor General for Detroit, he says he can recall predicting that the city would run out of money by 2010. “Detroit borrowed about a billion dollars to continue to spend more than they were receiving,” he says.

As far as his experience acting as Benton Harbor’s Emergency Manager, Harris says bankruptcy was never an option. When Harris realized that the city was losing money and going further and further into debt, he approached the problem strategically.

By cutting unnecessary spending, namely downsizing Benton Harbor’s Police Department by a third, Harris says there was no problem making payroll, and he even found a way to improve city parks and renovate Benton Harbor’s City Hall.

“We designed a public safety system where we cross train police and negotiated a contract to have stand by fire fighters,” says Harris. Restructuring the city’s Police and Fire Departments alone, cut about $1.5 million out of public safety spending.

So what would Benton Harbor look like without the changes he implemented?

“We don’t know what we’d do without intervention. We don’t want to know,” he tells Sandra. We need emergency managers to do what elected officials won’t do in their communities. The mentality of elected officials and the union structures are relatively similar in every city, Harris explains. “I think your back has to be up against the wall before any real change happens.”

--Annamarie Sysling

Below is a transcript of Sandra's entire conversation with Harris.

When people ask you why Detroit went bankrupt, how do you answer that?

It all starts with the mayor. The mayors have to pay attention to their own forecasts. Well, having said that, Mayor Archer left about the time that things were beginning to dishevel so mayors began to borrow, and Mayor Kilpatrick borrowed over a half billion dollars, Mayor Bing borrowed. I know initially 250 million but I believed he borrowed several million, hundred million after that.

When you look back at your time in Detroit as AG, and you were doing forecasting and looking to the future and as the famous headline said, “Detroit will be broke,” how accurate were your predictions.?

My predictions were right on target except that I predicted that we would run out of money somewhere before 2010. This was in 2005 I said I’ll give ‘em a few years. Well, the fact of the matter is Detroit borrowed about a billion dollars, certainly well over a half million dollars to continue to spend more than they were receiving

When you went in as EM to BH, was bankruptcy ever an option or consideration?

No, not even close, the city of BH had experienced losses from about 1.5 million to 2 million a year every year. I think one year the loss, the deficit was maybe a million dollars. They were going deeper and deeper in the hole, When I went in and took a look at the finances I said we can do this now. Bankruptcy, that’s just totally, not even a consideration. I never borrowed a dime, and we made payroll every two weeks. We had no problem at making payroll, we improved the city parks, we renovated two parks, we put $200,000 to renovate a swimming pool, renovated city hall, put air condition in and so forth. We made so many substantial improvements just by cutting costs. And what costs did we cut? We cut a third of the police department because we just didn’t need that many police officers. We had four square miles and 10,000 people so I worked with the police chief and we brought in the ICMA, international City County Management Association which had a specialization in public safety, and we designed a public safety system that is very similar to Kalamazoo’s in that we cross trained police and fire, Cross trained police so that we instead of having 10 firefighters we had three firefighters and the police were cross trained and we changed and negotiated a new contract whereby we had standby firefighters, we had part-time police officers which were allowed under the old contract and so we were able to cut $1.5 million out of public safety.

Cutting public safety and especially firefighters isn’t always popular with the citizens. How did you navigate that politically?

You know what, there were those people, particularly the unions that voiced their objections, but the people, I’m not, I can’t go so far as to say they supported me but they did not, the people were not protesting this because nothing changed. We had better public safety because we were able to bring in our part-time police officers between 3 and 7 when the kids get out from school, at 2 in the morning when the bars close, we were able to improve public safety.

The EM law, again, once voted down by Michigan voters, put back in: unpopular in some circles. Why is it needed?

The question is what else do you do? Think about Benton Harbor, they couldn’t make payroll. That with the police officers, with the citizens, would the services continue? We don’t know. I think that was the answer I should have given you in the first place. We don’t know what would happen without intervention, do we? because no city has come to the point where it just couldn’t provide, it did not have the revenues to provide the services. We don’t want to know.

One of the things KO has experienced is a lot of cooperation, certainly the GB but also from the business community. Did you have any of that in BH?

I had cooperation from the business community because they really liked what I did. I got the snow off the streets in the winter. That wasn’t being done. When I talked to one vice president of a major corporation and told him this is what we need to do and I’d like your cooperation. He said Joe, I understand what you’re doing and I totally agree with you know you’re the way you’re going about this but I’ve got to live with these people after you’re gone and so I can’t support you on this.

So in some ways we need the EM to do what elected officials can’t do in their own communities?

Won’t do because it’s not popular to lay off police officers, It’s not popular to lay off, to replace in a city that’s 90 percent African-American, to replace a African-American rubbish collector with a publicly owned rubbish collector system

Do you see BH and now Detroit of any indication of any real changes in municipal governments, privatization of services, changes to pension funding, anything else that may come up as a result of these experiences? Are we just seeing the first wave of something very different?

JH: I don’t think anything is going to change outside of the city of Detroit or the city of BH. I believe that you’ve got the same people in power, the same mentality, the same union structure,. No it’s still a very tough road to hoe. I don’t see any changes in the city of Detroit, BH or anyplace else. I think your back has to be up against the wall for the most part. From time to time you do see cities that people cooperate, people get it, and you have to applaud those but for the most part, from what I’ve seen, it just ..that is not, that’s the exception, not the rule.

Find more coverage of Detroit's bankruptcy and its impact on people and neighborhoods on WDET's Next Chapter Detroit blog.

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