Is there a new day in Michigan when it comes to regional cooperation and an appreciation of the need to promote metro Detroit’s mutual interests?
Top leaders from the area seem to think so. This new attitude was reflected in answers to questions provided by the Michigan Chronicle to Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties’ officials, ahead of the Mackinac Policy Conference.
For more than a quarter of a century, leaders of the largest counties in southeast Michigan have earned a well-deserved reputation for contentiousness despite the clear economic interdependence between them.
The insults that flew between leaders from Oakland County such as County Executive Brooks Patterson and Wayne County leaders like the late Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young, are as legendary as they were painful. Indeed, long political careers were made from exploiting the irrational fears and prejudices of each community’s voters.
And it wasn’t all that long-ago when Macomb County residents approved a referendum that literally changed the name of one of its most well-known cities; East Detroit, to Eastpointe. It was a deliberate affront to Detroiters, because Eastpointe residents did not want the rest of the country to think it was associated with the city.
Nationwide, that county’s voters came to be known as so hostile to the hopes and ambitions of African Americans that its “conservative” Democratic voters were called “Reagan” Democrats explicitly because of their bigotry and willingness to vote against their own economic interests just to undermine the socio-economic progress of non-whites. African Americans in particular.
It was a sad, bizarre, and bewildering spectacle for anyone outside the region. Most unfortunate of all, the ill will created such a toxic atmosphere of mistrust and hostility that while other major urban regions like Columbus, Atlanta, Seattle, Orlando, and elsewhere were growing by taking innovative approaches to regional cooperation, southeast Michigan was losing population; with its youth fleeing in droves, and social fabric tearing at the seams in large measure due to the mendaciousness of its leaders.
As late as 2014 Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson was quoted in an article in New Yorker Magazine as saying: “What we’re going to do is turn Detroit into an Indian reservation, where we herd all the Indians into the city, build a fence around it, and then throw in the blankets and corn.”
Today, however, amidst new leadership, a resurgent economy and wide spread development throughout the region, a far different message of cooperation is being delivered.
The leaders seem to now know if we want to grow our economy, embracing the regions’ diversity and shared goals of prosperity must be a fact of life. Whether it is the county executive from Wayne, Oakland or Macomb County, or the mayor of Detroit, they know when traveling
internationally to bring new business to Michigan, none of them cannot afford to have that business turned away or deflected to another state because they read about expressions of intolerance from leaders in the region, much less hate crimes being perpetrated by local residents.
The fact is when companies in other countries or anywhere in the United States look up Michigan on the internet to search for articles about our business climate, these leaders know all too well we cannot afford for them to see these kinds of articles.
What former Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm told a meeting of leaders at a Michigan Civil Rights Summit more than a decade ago, remains true even today:
“If we want to create a more business friendly environment here in Michigan, there is no reason we shouldn’t be able to create an environment friendly to every investor and every resident who chooses to make their home here in Michigan. The demographics in America and Michigan are changing, we are becoming more diverse. The fact is, if Michigan does not embrace this coming diversity another state will.”
It seems as if that message is now getting through.
Here are the thoughts of the county executives from Wayne, Macomb and Oakland counties in their own words.
WAYNE COUNTY EXECUTIVE
WARREN C. EVANS
· MC: Even as Detroit continues to see record growth in investment and development projects in the downtown and midtown regions of the city, there remains a persistent narrative that the city (and region) is badly divided between the haves and have nots. First, do you agree with the argument that the city’s long-time residents have not significantly benefitted from all the new investment and development opportunities?
o WE: The reason that narrative exists is because largely it’s true. That being said, the inequality gap didn’t happen overnight, and it won’t be solved overnight. I think the city’s leadership is making an intentional effort to address the gap. Detroit is experiencing a resurgence and I think the longer that continues the more people will benefit. But as I have said many times, unless this rebuild is more inclusive, we won’t be as strong and prosperous as we should be. Unless inclusion is intentional and more than a buzzword, we won’t see the progress we should be seeing. We all know our history in this region when it comes to issues of race, class, and equal opportunity. There are too many barriers to participating in the economy, particularly for people of color. Education and transit being two of the biggest barriers, and as a region and state, we’ve failed in those areas. However, I think we are at a unique time in our history and have a great opportunity to get some things right and build a Detroit and a Wayne County that is a model for inclusion. I’m hopeful we can make that happen, but that’s going to require addressing some of the region’s most vexing problems. That’s no small task.
· MC: Given the renewed attention paid to the issue of mass incarceration and how it has devastated black communities over the past three decades, there now appears to be some people questioning the necessity of building a new jail. Does this concern the County Executive?
o WE: You can debate criminal justice reforms, but the need for this new facility is beyond debate. As a former law enforcement official, and an African American, I am sensitive to some of the troubling issues surrounding the disproportionate level of incarceration that affects black and brown
communities. My immediate concern, however, is that we have been suffering with deteriorating criminal justice facilities for years now and that situation simply cannot be allowed to continue. We have an obligation to have a jail that meets the needs of society.
Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely reforms needed in our criminal justice system, but delaying this project isn’t the answer. This jail was badly needed when the last administration started building at Gratiot. It’s costly maintaining and operating jails that should have been replaced years ago. The new facility will have fewer beds than we currently have and we’ll continue to seek ways to improve jail diversion efforts. But that won’t change the fact of how badly we need this new facility for visitors, employees and inmates.
MC: What is Wayne County doing about county roads besides the Governor’s plan? County is spending more than $80 million a year on road construction and capital improvement projects from Public Act 51?
o WE: We are developing a ten-year asset management plan for what we believe is the first time as a county. It focuses on delivering the right fix at the right time with an emphasis on preventative maintenance. Your money goes a lot further if you strategically maintain your good roads while they are in good condition rather than waiting for them to decline before giving them attention. That plan will help us get more out of the funding we do receive. It’ll also position us to get the most out of any additional funding that comes from the state.
But the big takeaway from the development of the plan is that it’s going to cost billions of dollars over the next decade if we want to get 90% of our roads and bridges in good condition. So regardless of what we are doing at the County level, there is going to have to be a massive infusion of cash to dramatically reverse the decline. That’s not something anyone wants to hear, but it’s the reality we face.
· MC: You have the oldest, largest infrastructure that has been underfunded for decades. Is Wayne County being proactive in addressing this problem and how?
o WE: Our ten-year asset management plan will be a living document that evolves over time, but by fall we’ll have a road map for getting 90% of our roads and bridges into good condition over the next ten years. However, the success of that plan will depend on the state coming through with enough funding. Wayne County has the oldest and largest infrastructure. We are a destination city and county that takes on the most traffic, the way we allocate money as a state should reflect that.
MC: How do you feel about the governor’s gas tax?
o WE: I give the governor credit for proposing a real solution rather than a Band-Aid. That took guts. If you’re going to critique her plan, offer a solution, and offer one based in reality. And the reality is, Michigan has under invested in infrastructure for decades. The longer we wait to invest in our roads and bridges the more expensive the fix will be. We will need a massive investment in the coming years to get our roads and bridges where they need to be.
Macomb County Executive
· MC: What does regional cooperation look like to you?
o MH: Having open dialogue and the ability to communicate when there are concerns or issues which we need to try to figure out how we bring about better opportunities for the region.
· MC: What are the current projects you are working on with Wayne County?
MH: I don’t know if we’re working on any one project. We keep talking about things happening with the Detroit Zoological Authority; we’re working on something that’s going to be coming to Macomb County. We’re working on
some expansions with Cobo. There are conversations with SMART and DDOT, but understanding that SMART is a transit provider, not something that’s owned by the county. We are the biggest regional supporters of it that pay for that service, they’re talking to the provider in Detroit, which happens to be DDOT. So, there are conversations there about ridesharing and trying to be more efficient.
There are conversations about what we’re doing with the auto insurance rates. There are conversations about roads and funding, so you know there are many conversations that we have to try to figure out where our state legislators are making decisions that could be helpful.
· MC: Does Macomb County have its own road like assessment plan and how much have you invested in it?
o MH: We’re the only county in the state of Michigan that has done an engineered study of our roads. And, in fact, we’re going to be updating that next week. I’m going to be doing a press conference this week. And we’re updating the numbers — it was $1.2 billion needed for 803 lane miles of road in Macomb County. So, 803 lane miles and 44 bridges, costs associated with reconstruction of all of those is approximately $1.2 billion. But I’ve already got an estimated number that just came back from our engineers. And now we find that it’s with the same makeup as the actual roads and the bridges there more roads and need to prepare for. And I believe now we have added one more bridge. So now we’re in a situation where it’s approximately $1.8 to $1.9 billion.
And now we’re adding subdivisions because we didn’t do that within the first assessment that we had. And we believe that number is going to be astronomical. I couldn’t believe it’s not going to be somewhere around the $3 billion mark. And with that being said, I’m only responsible for about 50% of the roads in Macomb County, because there are cities, there are villages, and they get their own money.
So, the question is, am I going to get $2 or $$3 billion from the state of Michigan? No. But whatever that number is, and whatever plan they’re coming up with, has to be a real solution that provides real funding for Macomb County, to where the additional amount that I’m getting yearly, puts us in a situation where at least we’re starting to see maybe a turnaround, maybe a 5% or 8% differential in roads that are in fair condition, not turning to poor condition quicker than what we’re able to get poor condition turning into good condition. So, we are constantly seeing more roads turning into bad, even though we’re trying to fix roads, we can’t get ahead of the game. What we need to do is turn that around by getting an additional, for example, $100 million a year that may help us flip the script. We’re now starting to see roads turned into a good condition quicker than they’re turning into bad condition.
· MC: From approximately 2000 to 2015, according to a study by the Detroit think tank, Detroit Future City, 50% of the black middle class in Detroit moved out of the city. And the overwhelming majority of that population, of that black middle class, moved to Oakland and Macomb County. Have you been able to measure the change in terms of diversity of your population over the past 20 years?
o MH: Yeah. I say it this way, there are approximately over 870,000 people now in Macomb County now and just recently, it was the first time we’ve seen the swing at work. Because Macomb’s population now is greater than that of the city of Detroit.
There’s been an exodus of population in the city of Detroit. And I think the growth in Macomb County can be attributed to several things: the people leaving Detroit were looking for what I say is, just be blunt, to be honest about it, is safer neighborhoods, that better educational opportunities, and jobs. So those I think was the three main issues that people were looking at, and why they left Detroit. And I don’t think that’s any secret to anyone.
So, with that, I come to realize people don’t go where they don’t feel welcome. And that’s why people have to look up because they find a welcoming opportunity for them in our population. Last I heard we went from about a 4% to 5% African American population to nearly 15% of the population, which is a tremendous increase – it’s a testament or a statement to what’s happening in Macomb.
MC: And so how has the county responded to that kind of diversity?
o MH: First thing we did is recognizing this change and diverse population in Macomb County. We created One Macomb. And One Macomb has its own stand-alone website, that we administered out of my office. And it’s somebody specifically designated to bring different organizations and groups and people from ethnic backgrounds, and different cultures together to understand what are the opportunities.
How do they better connect, and what do we need to do to help celebrate the diverse nature of our population and the growth. And so, with that we have taken the lead in becoming the first of what they call a welcoming county in the state of Michigan.
We’ve now recognized that others are following our lead. There are many municipalities in Macomb County that have all of a sudden created their own diverse organizations. And Wayne County created something similar to what we’ve had here for probably the last six or seven years in Macomb County.
What we’re trying to do is create that welcoming feeling in getting people to realize that there are opportunities here, and how do we connect people with those opportunities.
Oakland County Executive
L. Brooks Patterson
· MC: Do you feel it’s necessary for your county to have a working relationship with Wayne County?
o LBP: Oakland County thinks it’s necessary to have a working relationship with all governments. We have well-established working relationships with our 62 local units of government, neighboring counties, state and federal governments.
· MC: If so, what does regional cooperation look like to you?
o LBP: Regional cooperation looks like the incredibly successful Regional Convention Facility Authority, which was formed from my vision through state legislation. Oakland, Wayne, and Macomb counties, the city of Detroit, and the state of Michigan all have an equal vote on the authority including the ability to exercise an individual veto on major issues. That governance structure has accounted for the immense success Cobo has experienced, including its expansion which came in on time and under budget.
MC: What are some areas you are collaborating with Wayne County right now?
o BP: Why is collaboration only with Wayne County? Regional collaboration includes our friends in Macomb and others in the region – it doesn’t merely run from north to south. In deference to your question, however, here are a few examples that are Wayne County-specific. I lent my top fiscal guy, Bob Daddow, to Wayne County to assist them to avoid a state takeover of their finances. I also authorized the Oakland County Business Finance Corporation to help businesses outside of Oakland County with financing, which has included dozens of businesses in Wayne County. Also, Oakland County operates CLEMIS, the Courts and Law Enforcement Management Information System. It provides computer-based public safety services and technology to over 250 public safety agencies in nine counties, including 25 law enforcement agencies and 12 fire departments in Wayne County. Oakland County subsidizes CLEMIS $2 million annually from its general fund to support operations. Oakland County also launched Automation Alley, which now operates independently with offices in Macomb and Detroit. Who else in the region is stepping up like this?
MC: Are there areas where you anticipate further cooperation in the future?
o BP: First, look at the regional record of cooperation so far. Oakland, Macomb, and Wayne along with Detroit formed the Great Lakes Water Authority to manage the region’s water and sewerage. Together, we operate the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Detroit Zoo, Cobo Center, and SMART, our regional bus system. This is a good point, however, to speak about regional cooperation and economic development. I have a long-standing policy that Oakland County does not actively recruit businesses from our neighbors, unlike what some in the region are doing. We attract jobs from out of state including foreign investment so that when we add businesses to the county, it’s a true net increase in jobs for the region rather than merely moving them a few miles down the road. We’re happy to have our regional partners join us in attracting more out-of-state investment to Southeast Michigan.
MC: How do you feel about Gov. Whitmer’s proposed gas tax proposal to pay for state infrastructure repair?
o LBP: An additional gas tax should not be used to solve Michigan’s infrastructure funding issues. Legislators ought to identify areas of the budget which they can scale back to free up more money for roads. Meanwhile, Lansing should explore both racino legislation, and, if the U.S. Congress ever decriminalizes marijuana, tapping into the marijuana taxes as funding sources for roads.
· MC: How much funding will your county receive from the proposed gas tax if it is approved?
o LBP: According to a recent media report, Oakland County ranks near the bottom of Michigan’s 83 counties in terms of road funding in relation to the number of registered vehicles in the county. Oakland County accounts for about one quarter of Michigan’s GDP, the largest in the state. Yet, we only receive $144 per registered vehicle. Under Gov. Whitmer’s proposal, our share would only rise to $188.