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BH gets a new EFM

Tony Saunders, II

Tony Saunders, II

Saunders expected to better communicate with city, commission

By Mike Sandula
The Michigan Citizen

BENTON HARBOR — Effective Feb. 1, Joseph Harris will no longer be the emergency financial manager (EFM) of Benton Harbor. But that’s only to make room for his replacement: 26-year-old Tony Saunders II.

The Local Emergency Financial Assistance Loan Board voted unanimously Jan. 11 to appoint Saunders, a former financial consultant for the City of Highland Park.

“Mr. Harris took a number of steps to address the financial emergency in Benton Harbor, but unfortunately at this point in time the city is still experiencing a financial emergency,” Terry Stanton, director of communications for the Michigan Treasury Department, told the Michigan Citizen.

The city’s general fund deficit is approximately $2 million, according to a financial plan dated Sept. 30, 2012, which was the most recent report available.

Stanton noted a communication gap between Harris and the elected officials of Benton Harbor.

“There have been some difficulties there in collaboration with Mr. Harris and city officials and the board felt it was appropriate at this time to move in a new direction, perhaps have a new voice,” he said.

“Mr. Saunders’ background in Highland Park … addressing its fiscal problems for about the last year was seen as an important piece of his experience and certainly the expectation would be that he can work closely and collaborate with the elected officials (and) communicate well with citizens in Benton Harbor to ensure everyone’s pulling in the same direction and working to remedy the problem.”

And Saunders plans to do just that. He’s already reached out to city commissioners and plans to meet with citizens once there.

“I need to talk to them and figure out what their problems are before doing anything — that’ll be key to any decision that I make while I’m there,” he told the Michigan Citizen.

Harris said he sees the appointment of Saunders as “a step forward.”

“The city commission as a whole, as a body, reacted negatively to some of the things that I did,” Harris told the Michigan Citizen. “I think it’s a good thing that I took care of what I needed to do so this guy doesn’t haven’t to incur the wrath.”

Harris recently enacted a “special assessment” to fund the city’s public safety expenses after voters rejected police and fire millage renewals.

He was appointed emergency financial manager in 2010 by then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm under Public Act 72. As EFM, Harris earned $11,000 a month, the same salary Saunders is slated to earn.

Saunders most recently worked with the city of Highland Park in an advisory role on behalf of the Treasury. Highland Park Mayor DeAndre Windom refused to comment on Saunders’ performance during his time there.

Saunders previously served as chief of staff for Detroit City Councilmember Saunteel Jenkins and as senior adviser for Council President Charles Pugh. He also has a background in marketing, having served as partner at WYLD Marketing Group.

“He appears to be a good fit for Benton Harbor,” said Mayor James Hightower.

Hightower’s biggest complaint about Harris was his lack of communication. Therefore, he views Saunders’ marketing background as a plus. “I think that’s going to be real helpful in terms of getting information out,” he said.

On Jan. 14, Hightower and the 9-member city commission met to devise a list of priorities to give to Saunders. The list includes imposing a city income tax and assessing various job positions, among other things. “I imagine a majority of the things on our list, Mr. Saunders will already have on his list,” Hightower said.

Saunders says he looks to play a role similar to the one he had in Highland Park — advise, counsel, support and help implement strategic plans.

“My first goal is to make an exit plan,” Saunders said. “I don’t plan to be there a long time.”

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