(Crystal A. Proxmire, The Ferndale 115 News, Feb. 15, 2012 ed)
Oakland County Democrats stood together in the hotel lobby, speaking loudly but still largely ignored by the bustling, well-dressed attendees of the 2012 State of the County Address given Feb 8, 2012 by Oakland County Executive Director L. Brooks Patterson.
The rift between Republicans and Democrats at the County level has been escalating since Governor Rick Snyder signed a bill that forces Oakland County to reduce its representation from 25 County Commissioners to 21, and gives the power of redistricting to the majority party in the County Commission. The statewide bill, which only immediately affects Oakland County, lets the Republicans re-draw the District lines themselves. As lobbying and legal costs soar and elections are disrupted as the maps are being redrawn, Patterson claims the redistricting will save taxpayer dollars.
Oakland County Democrats have filed a lawsuit to get the law declared unconstitutional, and now Patterson is upset with them. Kathleen Gray of The Detroit Free Press reported that Patterson said, “These guys have got a lawsuit against me, so to hell with them. If they’re going to treat me like that, I don’t want them there.”
At the event, Patterson’s Press Coordinator Bill Mullan said that Patterson’s remarks and refusal to invite the Democrats was “a joke that the Democrats are taking too far.” He added that “Anyone who knows Brooks knows he has a sharp sense of humor. What he did was tongue-in-cheek.” Mullan also pointed out that even though they weren’t invited, “it’s not like we’re going to have security throw them out or anything.”
Patterson’s “sharp sense of humor” shined through in his speech as he joked “How the hell did the Democrats get in here? So much for security.” He also took a jab at the President, saying “I wanted to put up all these American flags before Obama confiscates them all.”
The Democrat’s rouge address and Patterson’s official one give wildly different views of Oakland County and the quality of life residents experience.
Patterson’s speech painted a positive picture of a thriving Oakland County. “Oakland County still remains Michigan’s leader in economic development, applied technology, fiscal practices, and quality of life,” he said, citing growth in his “Emerging Sectors” program and in Automation Alley.
Medical Main Street is another program which is helping to bring jobs and educational opportunities to the area, including a program where cardiologists volunteer to go to local high schools and evaluate students for heart conditions. The program also helped create 1,933 new jobs, retain 638 existing jobs, attract investments of $212 million, Patterson said
He noted that in 2000 The Main Street Oakland County program began, and since then has helped revitalize downtowns in Clawson, Farmington, Ferndale, Franklin, Highland, Holly, Lake Orion, Ortonville, Oxford, Pontiac, Rochester and Walled Lake, taking credit for 6,128 new jobs and 713 new businesses over the past twelve years.
Another point of pride for Patterson is the budget surplus in the County. “Two hundred and one million dollars. That’s how much cash Oakland County has on hand at the close of the fiscal year September 30, 2011,” he said. “We’ve built up this reserve during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. And while other municipalities and counties were risking torticollis stretching to keep their heads above water, we were able to erect this significant cash buffer.”
He added that “We’ve been able to cut over $50 million from our General Fund expenditures since 2008. Most of those savings came from a 309-person reduction in our work force, starting in 2007.” He credited his seven-person task force, which included his five deputies, with meeting at least weekly to make budgeting recommendations.
Another success touted by Patterson was the institution of Oakfit, a program started five years ago to encourage employee fitness. Employees have their blood analyzed and high-risk employees are referred to their physicians. Patterson said that healthcare costs to the County have dropped by a million dollars over the past year as a result of the program.
Democrats did not have such a rosy view. Their speech, given by ten officials, each reading a couple paragraphs at a time, outlined the ways they think the County could be run more effectively.
The speech cited the irony that eliminating a Deputy Executive or two would save more money than eliminating elected officials. It complained of bad roads and of empty strip malls created by untamed urban sprawl. It pointed out that Democrats have not been allowed to bring resolutions out of committee because of partisan blocking, and that topics like lobbyist compensation, a proposed moratorium on fracking, and the proposed creation of a Veterans’ Services Advisory Council have been ignored by Republicans.
It gave statistics from the Michigan League for Human Services, including:
-35,000 Oakland County children are living in poverty (nearly 1 in 8 children)
-There’s been more than 50% increase in child poverty over the last few years
-Unemployment quadrupled between 2000 and 2010; and
-More than 1 in 10 Oakland County residents live in poverty, a 49.3% increase in the last five years.
Democrats said they hope to move the County forward with a Buy Oakland First Purchasing Policy, a financial literacy core curriculum requirement in area school districts, development of a model ordinance that can help restrict expansion of exploitative pay day lending facilities, and development of an Oakland County Working family Task Force, among other ideas.
Both Republican and Democratic Commissioners face unrest as the 2012 elections approach. Because the district map is not known, candidates don’t know what district they will be living in come election time. Commissioner Craig Covey, who represents Ferndale, Hazel Park and the Southern part of Royal Oak, was told by representative’s in the County Clerk’s office that he should wait until the new districts are announced, but they allowed him to file for the 25th District anyway, because as of now it still exists.
County Clerk Bill Bullard said that they are taking applications for all 25. “If there is a new law in effect, we’ll deal with it later. We’ll personally notify everyone. We let them know there are 25 districts now, which may be subject to change.” He also indicated that if a district is eliminated or the number changes, the candidates will have to start over with their petitioning process.
Kevin Howley, thus far the only Democrat running against Patterson for the Oakland County Executive Seat, was on hand to support the Democratic County Commissioners in the lobby. “Year after year we hear Brooks Patterson boast about his achievements in the State of the County Address. Those activities, however, don’t seem to be translating into jobs or growth. Of the 1300 largest counties in the United States, Oakland County hovers near the bottom when it comes to change in median household income over the last ten years. And that change in median household income is actually a decline of 15%. Poverty in the county has also risen significantly during the last decade.”
Howley also said that if he were giving the State of the County address “it would be a much more open, inviting, public event. These things are paid for with public money and I’d want to see thousands of people, anybody that wanted to come, feel welcome.”
He also criticized the politicking that led to the rift between Republicans and Democrats. “Instead of providing enlightened leadership, Mr. Patterson’s attentions have been diverted over the last year by partisan activities that serve only a small group of people in power, actions that are inconsistent with our history of cooperation here in Oakland County. …It’s time we stop playing partisan games and focus on the needs of the County.”
The entire speech given by Democrats can be found on Craig Covey’s Blog: http://coveys-corner.blogspot.com/2012/02/state-of-county-democratic-county.html.
A press release from Oakland County on the State of the County Address can be found at: http://www.oakgov.com/about/news/2012/pr_12_19.html.