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Muskegon Heights Community Forum Talks About Jail, Emergency Manager, Millage Renewal, Features Benton Harbor Councilman

Andrew Trzaska | October 20, 2012

A community forum on Saturday in Muskegon Heights gathered a small number of city residents and other community members to discuss the possibility of a jail within the city as well, the school district’s emergency manager, and the upcoming millage renewal vote that could pay off the school district’s outstanding debt.

Heights mayor pro tem Kimberly Sims thanked those who attended the meeting but challenged them and those not present to be more involved and active.

“We need people up in arms on the water issue. We need people up in arms about other things concerning our city… I implore you. Stay on us. Keep calling us.”

Sims showed support for the city administration and asked city residents to back up the council and the administration as they work within the “chess game” of Muskegon County.

About 30 people were in attendance at Saturday’s meeting, including councilwoman Patrice Johnson, mayor pro tem Kimberly Sims, county commissioners Anthony Longmire and Rillastine Wilkins, jail advocacy group Letters r better, and some city and county residents.

Discussions on the issues are segmented per topic below.

Possibility of a new county jail within Muskegon Heights

Opinion in the room portrayed multiple arguments for and against locating a new county jail within city limits.

County Commissioner Rillastine Wilkins, who represents Muskegon Heights, explained her involvement in the jail relocation discussion up to the present.

A jail committee formed by the county has created a short list of locations for a new jail and juvenile detention center – including a site at 414 Broadway Avenue in Muskegon Heights.  Wilkins stated she was instrumental in getting the site on the list.

Wilkins stated that she did not advocate for the Broadway site initially, but did start when she noticed that the list of possible locations in the county for a new jail did not include any within Muskegon Heights.  Wilkins believes the jail could provide economic benefits for the city.

Wilkins pushed for the city council to express their opinion in a resolution to know where the city and its constituents stand.  The city council has continued to table the vote on the issue.

“I’m alright with the decision Muskegon Heights makes,” said Wilkins. “But my concern was getting those monies for Muskegon Heights.”

Representatives from Letters r Better, an advocacy group initially focused on prisoner policies in the county jail who have grown to speak out on the jail renovation or relocation discussions.  Multiple voices from the group suggested that there would not be be much economic impact.

Norton Shores resident and former Muskegon Heights resident Gloria White Gardner argued that the City of Muskegon Heights would not see much economic development from a jail.

“We don’t supply anything that will be used in the jail except for people”.

Gardner’s comments also suggested that a lack of community intervention in its troubled residents and youth isn’t a reason to build the jail.

“We pimp that we have an Urban League in Muskegon County, which we don’t have. And we’re struggling to keep an NAACP going… the village has collapsed.”

Several public voices at the meeting conveyed concerns with the image issues surrounded with having a jail within city limits.

Debra Brazile Griffin: “There is need for improvements in the jail. The problem with the jail and the emergency manager, our biggest problem is we have two depressed communities without jobs. And when we have communities with people who aren’t capable of getting jobs… having a jail present is intimidating.”

Griffin went on to acknowledge Muskegon Heights’ current funding crunch, citing the upcoming withdrawal of Norton Shores and Fruitport from a water contract with the city. Griffin said that the decision can’t be made within “a bubble” of just Muskegon Heights.

One question from the public concerned who would be building the jail. Wilkins confirmed Muskegon County would operate the jail, but no decision has been made about who would handle the renovation or construction of a new jail.

Muskegon Heights Public Schools Millage Renewal

A brief discussion covering led by councilwoman Johnson briefed the public on what the upcoming millage ballot proposal will cover.

An non-homestead operating millage has been assessed on owners of second homes, rental homes and commercial properties since 1994 to pay for the building of the current Muskegon Heights High School. The level is 18 mills, or $18 for every $1,000 of property.

The millage is set to expire because the high school is nearly paid off, but the proposal on November’s ballot is to continue the assessment of that millage.  This continued revenue stream would be diverted to paying down the $16 million debt that Muskegon Heights Public Schools incurred before being taken over by the state earlier this year.

Muskegon Heights Public Schools emergency manager Dr. Donald Weatherspoon and state legislator Marcia Hovey-Wright have asked city residents to renew the millage.

What would happen next if the millage is not renewed is unclear, though the state will look to recoup the $16 million it is owed.  Weatherspoon and Johnson have indicated that the city would assess a tax on all property owners within the city get the money back, not just on commercial, rental property and second homeowners.

Proposal 1  – referendum of Public Act 4, which allows for Michigan’s emergency managers.

The last discussion of Saturday’s meeting focused on November’s Proposal 1, which would decide the fate of Public Act 4 (PA-4). His act, allowed the State of Michigan to install emergency managers in cities or school districts in financial distress.

Voting yes on Proposal 1 would re-instate PA-4, which has been temporarily suspended ahead of the referendum vote.  Voting “no” would kill the law.

Discussion of the referendum and PA-4 swayed hard to one side – against the proposal. This was primarily due to a presentation by Benton Harbor city councilman Marcus Mohammed, a strong opponent of the law. Benton Harbor was the first city in recent times to receive an emergency manager under PA-4.

Presentation time was not given at Saturday’s meeting to opinions supporting PA-4.

Mohammed downplayed the fiscal issues that led Benton Harbor and Muskegon Heights to receive emergency managers  Mohammed claims instead that the emergency manager law is driven by corporate interest:

“It is the corporations that are responsible for the crafting [of Public Act 4],” said Mohammed.

“Emergency managers come in to get the booty,” said Mohammed. “That’s their modus operandi.”

Mohammed alleges that Whirlpool attempted to influence the government in Benton Harbor through elections, and later through the installation of emergency manager Joe Harris by the state.

Regarding local implementation of PA-4 in Muskegon Heights, Mohammed openly claimed he did not have enough knowledge on the matter to comment. He also suggested that the state and corporations are set to try to take over the city, especially the city’s water plant.

Mohammed claimed the law is a conspiracy against “If Public Act 4 were a rag, and you rung it out it was drip slavery… because any time you take away someone’s right to vote, that is slavery,” said Mohammed. “What you don’t use, you lose.  What you abuse you lose too.”


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