City at center of debate over law

By Tim Martin
Associated Press

BENTON HARBOR — 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.