Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Detroit Area: Could Joe Harris be the Harbinger of a Revolution in Municipal Management, or Just a Bump in the Road to Racial Socialism?


After 20 months as emergency manager of Benton Harbor, Joseph Harris nearly has the struggling city breaking even. (John Madill/ The Herald-Palladium)

December 29, 2011 at 1:57 p.m.
Joe Harris’ Lean and Mean Steps Stir Controversy
By Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

Benton Harbor

Call it "Revenge of the Accountant."

When Joe Harris was auditor general of Detroit, he conducted half a dozen studies that showed how the city could save money, including $15 million in its transportation department.

All the studies were ignored.

As emergency manager of Benton Harbor, he doesn't have that problem.

He searches for ways to cut costs, comes up with cheaper alternatives and implements them. He is the mayor, City Commission and city manager rolled into one.

He has sliced staff, rebid garbage collection, outsourced services and negotiated contracts. He drastically shrank the Fire Department and gave its duties to the police.

"We need to be lean and mean," he said. "We need to do things more efficiently."
In 20 months, he has already accomplished most of what he was charged with.

The budget is nearly balanced for the first time in a decade. And the city is no longer a deadbeat, finally paying vendors and back taxes to the IRS.

In a reverse of Harris' tenure in Detroit, it's now the mayor and City Commission who complain about being ignored.

They have been rendered toothless by the same state legislation that gives emergency managers so much power. Emergency managers are deployed by the governor to repair municipalities in dire fiscal straits.

Benton Harbor commissioners said Harris never consults with them, leaving residents without a say in any of the changes that affect them.

"He comes off as some sort of demagogue with a napoleonic attitude," Commissioner Dennis Knowles said about the diminutive Harris. "I don't know if he got beat up when he was little or what."

Harris said he tried to work with elected officials but, from the start, several ridiculed him at public meetings. They didn't want to surrender their power to an outsider.

The bad feelings have grown worse with a war of words that has gotten personal.
The straight-talking Harris, no shrinking violet at 67, sometimes seems to relish the fight.

"I had no chance to work with them," he said. "That's too bad. It would make so much more sense for us to work with each other. I accomplished everything I did without them."

Trimming the fat

When Harris arrived in Benton Harbor last year, he was shocked by what he found.

He knew the finances were perilous. But the fiscal management was atrocious.

The city used pension funds to pay salaries, he said. It paid $80,000 a year in overdraft fees. It spent $1.3 million more than it earned in the prior year.

When staffers objected to the unchecked spending, they were fired, leading to 10 city managers in 11 years.

Add that dysfunction to a city where nearly half of the 10,000 residents live in poverty and a quarter are unemployed and you had a municipal nightmare.

"He's done an excellent job, especially in light of the conditions he had to work under," said Mayor-elect James Hightower, one of the few commissioners who supports the emergency manager.

Harris began by visiting each city department to see what could be cut.

At public works, he learned it had nine heavy equipment operators but only five pieces of heavy equipment. Goodbye, four heavy equipment operators.

He discovered the city hadn't used the lowest bidder for garbage collection. He rebid the contract. Cha-ching! $100,000 saved.

He sought new proposals for property and casualty insurance. Cha-ching! Another $100,000 saved.

By the time Harris was done, he had pruned nearly a quarter of city staff, from 103 workers to 75.

And he cut yearly expenses by almost 20 percent, from $8 million to $6.5 million.

"We're not out of the woods yet," he said. "We still have a lot of work to do."

Harris didn't limit his actions to the budget.

He raised some eyebrows in April by replacing members of the planning commission and Brownfield Redevelopment Authority with his own choices.

He said the two boards, which oversee development, were hurting the city by opposing a tax abatement for Whirlpool to build its headquarters here.

Safety issues

The biggest nuts for Harris to crack were police and fire.

The two departments, along with public works, accounted for 81 percent of the city budget.

The Fire Department, in particular, made the penny-pinching accountant shudder.

The city was spending $1.2 million for 10 firefighters to respond to 40 fires a year.

Harris estimated that 95 percent of their pay went to waiting around for fires.

He hired the Washington-based International City/County Management Association to review police and fire with an eye toward cutting expenses.

"I'm the first person to tell you I'm not an expert on any of this," he said. "I have to get experts to get me recommendations so I can make the right decision."

He seized on one of the association's most drastic suggestions — combining the departments into a single agency whose members could respond to both crime and fires.

Most small municipalities are leery of making such a move. Police and fire unions oppose it and hold a lot of sway in local elections.

But Harris wasn't running for anything.

"I didn't have to be concerned about being elected in the next election," he said. "We just took the politics out of the decision-making process."

What's more, his powers grew exponentially in April.

New state legislation allowed emergency managers to nullify contracts, change collective-bargaining agreements and even dissolve locally elected councils.

When police and fire negotiated new contracts in July, they had little choice but to accede to Harris' demands.

The new Public Safety Department has three firefighters and 17 police officers who are being trained to fight fires. In the past, the city had 10 firefighters and 23 police officers.

The weakened unions also agreed, for the first time, to allow the use of part-timers — a dozen to fight fires and another dozen to spell the police.

The moves will allow the city to save $900,000 a year in firefighting costs, from $1.2 million to $300,000, said Harris.

"It's still a work in progress," he said about his stewardship. "We've made more than a 90-degree turn of the ship, but it's not 180 degrees yet."

Rocky road

The transition from the old way of fighting crime and fires has been rocky.

In August, a home was destroyed when police were delayed in responding because they were at a crime scene.

A month earlier, the fire chief of neighboring St. Joseph was alarmed by a rise in the number of calls to help Benton Harbor firefighters.

Critics said the move was an example of Harris' autocratic leadership.

"What is he doing in this city?" asked the Rev. Edward Pinkney, president of the Berrien County chapter of the NAACP. "He doesn't live here. He doesn't know the residents here. He doesn't care to know the residents here."

Ideally, making such a drastic change in public safety would have been done gradually, said Harris, who rents an apartment in Benton Harbor but normally lives in Ann Arbor.

But he didn't have much time to dawdle, he said. The city was on verge of bankruptcy.

He believes the city is working out the kinks. The police haven't asked St. Joseph police for assistance in three months.

Last week Harris responded to a fire at an abandoned building. All eight people fighting the blaze wore the same fire-retardant suits, he said.

He couldn't tell the difference between full-time firefighters, part-time ones and police doing their new jobs.

(313) 223-4186

[Thanks to reader-researcher RC for this story.]

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