BENTON HARBOR — Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad and his challenger, City Commissioner Ron Singleton, agreed on many things during Tuesday’s Mayoral Debate at the Benton Harbor Library.
But whether the city should investigate the mismanagement claims of the city’s former financial director was not one of them.
Singleton said the claims need to be investigated so they can be confirmed or put to rest, because the citizens have the right to know.
“We don’t need to have any clouds hanging over our head,” he said during the debate, which was sponsored by Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Benton Harbor-St. Joseph Alumnae Chapter. “We need to be transparent. People need to feel good that their tax dollars are being spent wisely and that there’s no behind-the-scenes skulduggery or whatever going on.”
Muhammad sidestepped the question, saying the city’s finances are in great shape, having enjoyed balanced budgets and clean audits for the past four years, with the last audit getting the highest rating of unmodified.
“Which means that there were zero findings with the finances,” he said. “So our finances are in the best shape that it has ever been in in a long, long time.”
He said the city has never had $2 million in cash in the bank.
“But we do now,” he said.
Muhammad said there is no money missing and every penny collected from the city income tax is being used to repair the city’s streets, sidewalks and alleys, and for emergencies. But the mayor did not say whether he would or wouldn’t investigate the mismanagement claims.
The question, read by moderator Lisa Peeples-Hurst, referred to the resignation of the city’s former financial director, Andrew Clark. He stated in his resignation letter that he was resigning on Feb. 27 shortly after finding out that without his knowledge, city income tax payments were being received directly through the city treasurer’s window, which he was tasked with tracking. By law, city income tax money and returns have to be kept separate from other city money.
“I immediately contacted Commissioner (Ron) Singleton and resigned,” Clark wrote in the letter, which was obtained by The Herald-Palladium. “The City Treasurer is responsible for a proper accounting of all cash receipts in their charge. I would never have accepted responsibility of City Tax withholding payments without a complete accounting, indeed a clean audit, of previous receipts, an agreed upon process for moving forward, and a formal handoff with full Commission knowledge.”
Clark, who started working for the city in March 2018, also alleged that city income tax money wasn’t being deposited into the bank in a timely fashion and that he wasn’t included in the weekly financial meetings between then-City Manager Darwin Watson and an official from Plante Moran, the public accounting firm that handles the city’s finances when there is no finance director.
Muhammad and Singleton are competing for the mayor’s seat in next Tuesday’s citywide election.
Other questions fielded by Muhammad and Singleton concerned housing and how they would attract college-educated Benton Harbor natives to return to the city.
Singleton said the city needs economic development to give college-educated natives something to come back to.
To do that, he said the city needs to take out the favoritism.
“We need to get the information out that we need somebody for certain positions, making sure it’s a fair process, making sure there’s adequate income, paying them livable wages,” he said.
In addition, he said there needs to be new housing built without driving out the people who have lived in the city for years.
Muhammad said the city is in need of not only affordable housing, but of a higher standard of housing for professional people.
“I know an attorney from Benton Harbor ... who when she came back to Benton Harbor, she was looking for housing and could not find the kind of housing that complemented where she was professionally,” he said. “We have to provide that level of housing for professionals and persons who want to come home and give back to our community. But at the same time, we cannot leave other residents out, which is one of the reasons we redesigned the master plan. We want to have mixed housing.”
He said the city collects more money in property taxes from 10 houses, each worth $1 million, on Graham Boulevard “than all of the homes that we have on Main Street back.”
“The property taxes from those homes along with the property taxes from the inner city together, that’s what’s sustaining the city of Benton Harbor,” he said.
Muhammad said more growth is needed to expand the city’s property tax base. Soon, he said there will be 14 new apartments in the former Harbor Center at the corner of Pipestone and Main streets.
Muhammad also said that the Vincent Place building is also poised to add 48 new apartments. However, when the manager of the building was called after the debate, he said that deal fell through.
Muhammad, 44, is seeking his second term as mayor. He was first elected to a commission seat in 2009, was re-elected in 2013, and was elected mayor in November 2015.
The father of seven children is married to Abisayo Muhammad. He works in sales and is a leasing consultant at Signature Dealer Group in Benton Township.
He said one of his top goals is to continue to lead the city in a positive and productive manner for the overall success of the city.
Singleton, 63, was appointed as a city commissioner in January 2016, then elected in 2017. Before that, he had worked for the city in several capacities a number of years ago, including as chief of police and acting city manager.
Singleton, the father of five adult children, is married to Jennifer Jones Singleton and retired from law enforcement in the city after being shot in the line of duty. He said he would bring years of municipal experience to the mayor’s seat, including knowledge of the overall management of the day-to-day operations of the city, police operations, economic development, negotiation skills in contracts for services, and for employee union agreements.
Contact: lwrege@TheHP.com, 932-0361, Twitter: @HPWrege