When Monte Scott recently decided to fill the potholes plaguing his Muskegon Heights neighborhood, the 12-year-old Oakview Elementary student was doing so out of a love for his community. Little did he know, his actions were about to vault his good deeds onto the national, and even international, stage—and further launch a conversation centered around crumbling infrastructure.
That conversation continued to play out Monday evening, when Monte was honored by the Muskegon Heights City Council. During the Council meeting, Muskegon Heights Mayor Kimberley Sims presented Monte with a plaque from herself and the Council members, as well as a series of paintings from Carl Carter, a nationally renowned artist who recently kicked off his countrywide tour with a show at Mahali in Muskegon Heights.
“Since 2002, our city has lost $10.2 million in revenue sharing,” Sims said Monday, referring to the billions of dollars in state tax collections that numerous Michigan mayors, the Michigan Municipal League, and other local leaders have accused state lawmakers of using since 2002 to fill state budget holes instead of fulfilling a revenue sharing promise to cities. “When you look at that, those funds could have been diverted towards our roads.”
“Muskegon Heights isn’t the only pothole-filled city; cities across the state are dealing with that,” Sims continued. “We need to look at fixing that. It’s degenerated to the place where our kids are holding the burden, and that’s not OK. What Monte has done is catapulting this issue to the limelight.”
On Wednesday, March 27, Monte spent his half-day off from school filling the potholes that riddled Maffett Street in Muskegon Heights.
“I was thinking about doing it for months,” Monte told us in a previous interview. “It was a perfect day. I got up, put on some shoes, filled up a garbage can with dirt, and put the dirt in the potholes.”
Many of the potholes Monte filled were “too deep, almost to my ankles,” he explained.
In addition to the Muskegon Heights City Council, Monte’s efforts have been lauded throughout the state—Gov. Gretchen Whitmer called the student this past Friday to thank him for his work.
Surrounded Monday evening by family members beaming with pride, Monte said the Muskegon Heights City Council honoring him was “amazing.”
“I wasn’t expecting the attention,” said Monte, who’s using his newfound fame to further empower his city and start a business that will focus on community improvement projects, such as cutting grass and raking leaves.
“I hope it will get more people to start thinking in a positive way, to think about the ways they can help,” Monte said, referring to his business. [To find out more about Monte’s business, you can check out his Go Fund Me page by clicking here.]
As media reports of Monte’s work spread like wildfire across the country, the spotlight shed on Muskegon Heights amplifies experiences being felt by disenfranchised and financially struggling cities throughout the state, and country.
Devastated by the 2008 recession, Muskegon Heights “is just starting to recover” from that economic downturn, Sims said. When the economy plummeted a little more than a decade ago, the city of Muskegon Heights had to focus on “keeping on the lights”—metaphorically and literally, the mayor emphasized. That translated to a city that had little money to spend on infrastructure. The recession combined with the decrease in state funding resulted in significant infrastructure problems in the city, which Muskegon Heights has tackled through a number of ways, including passing a streets millage in 2017, landing $3 million for a substantial redesign and reconstruction of Sherman Boulevard, and securing $250,000 to improve Park Street.
The millage raises between $470,000 and $500,000 annually for road repair, maintenance and other road improvements throughout the city. With the funding from the millage, Muskegon Heights was able to impact 26 blocks of residential streets in 2018 and is expected to do the same in 2019, former Muskegon Heights City Manager Jake Eckholm said in a previous interview with the Muskegon Times.
While the millage allows the city to do far more than it’s been able to do with the roads in recent years, that funding still won’t allow the city to address all of its street issues, Sims said—in large part because the economic downturn and $10.2 million loss in state revenue sharing translated to a reduction in Department of Public Works [DPW] employees and, in past years, the city being unable to provide preventative maintenance.
“With the decrease in funding, the staff and personnel doing the job has been the biggest change,” the mayor said. “We have 12 full-time and three part-time [Department of Public Works] employees. They’re not just dedicated to filling potholes. They’re cleaning sewers, picking up trash and debris, fixing main breaks. If there’s a main break, there’s no one filling potholes.”
If Muskegon Heights had received the aforementioned $10.2 million in state funding, Sims said it “could’ve given us more employees on the streets, crack sealer, preventative maintenance,” and more.
And it’s certainly not just Sims saying this—mayors across Michigan have urged state lawmakers to send taxpayer dollars back to the cities. You can see Sims, Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss, and others discuss the matter in the video below.
When asked how municipalities can recapture revenue sharing, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said she aims to see the state once again provide that funding to its cities.
“We’ve not been living up to the promise of revenue sharing for a long time,” Whitmer said during the Michigan Municipal League’s 2019 Capital Conference in April.
“I understand how important revenue sharing is for our local units of government,” the governor continued. “…As I try to address our infrastructure mess, you’re going to benefit at the local level. When we have sound accounting principles…it’s going to put us in a better position to actually make that investment in revenue sharing we should’ve been all along.”
Still, all of that doesn’t translate to the immediate support that is needed on Muskegon Heights streets.
“People complain and complain, and the city never fills them up,” Monte, referring to his neighborhood’s potholes, said in a previous interview. “And I feel horrible because they never do it. They should fix the streets.”
Monte’s frustration is felt among drivers throughout the city—several of whom wrote to us after our initial report on the student’s actions, saying potholes has caused hundreds of dollars worth of car repairs.
“I had to spend more than $400 on car repairs because of potholes,” one reader who asked not to be publicly named wrote to us. “I’m fortunate because I had that money saved up, but a lot of people don’t. If you don’t, that means you might not have money for rent or food.”
It’s this reality that inspires Monte to do what he does (which, we have to add, doesn’t stop at filling potholes—he also voluntarily shovels his neighbors’ walkways, mows yards, helps seniors unload their groceries, and more).
“He does it out of the kindness of his heart,” Monte’s mother, Trinell Scott, said. “He wants to make the city a better place. He didn’t do this for attention or monetary gain. He does it because he’s a good kid. I really think that’s the gift the Lord has given him, and it’s his way of giving back.”