By Michael Carmichael
While the local political landscape seems to undergo continual change, one longstanding fixture is Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, who was first elected to the post in 1992. As the CEO of one of the nation’s wealthiest and most successful counties, Patterson oversees a workforce of 4,400 employees and controls an annual budget of more than a half billion dollars.
Corp!: With everyone “reaching across the aisle” these days, how is inter-governmental cooperation doing in the Metro area?
Patterson: It’s alive and well in the county. Municipalities such as Bloomfield Township and Birmingham, Farmington and Farmington Hills, Orion and Clarkston are all talking together about ways in which they can be more efficient by sharing common services. The county is able to fund the feasibility studies for these projects from the interest on an account we set up a few years ago. We help them find outside experts who prepare an exhaustive report that gives them the upsides and the downsides and they decide what will work best for them and their citizens.
The concept is working well throughout the area as now all of the counties and the city of Detroit are talking about common interests such as transportation, even Cobo Hall. We’re hoping that will be able to be settled maybe as early as next year, particularly now that Mike Ilitch is involved.
Corp!: You had some pretty frank comments on the economy recently. Is there anything that might happen that would change your mind - or at least your projected timetable of a return to growth?
Patterson: We prepare a rolling two-year budget at the county, so we’re okay for fiscal 2009 and 2010. But if real estate values continue to plummet, those projections could be affected negatively. When more than 60 percent of your budget comes from property taxes based on property value, you could wreak havoc on the ranks of the Department of Management and Budget.
On the bright side, we are constantly adding new companies, and with those new companies come new employees who look for housing in Oakland County. One program, the Emerging Sectors program, has added 13,000 jobs in four years.
We also solicit foreign firms to locate in Oakland County, and more than 740 have located here over the years. It operates like sort of a “hedge fund” because when our domestic economy slows down, there’s a good chance that the economy of these foreign companies will help pick up the slack as they continue to grow and invest here.
Corp!: You created Automation Alley and a mindset that Oakland County in particular and perhaps the entire area, was capable of making the transition from heavy manufacturing to heavy thinking. Are we really becoming a knowledge-based economy?
Patterson: We certainly are. We now have more than 940 companies in an eight county area participating in the Alley. It has grown into one of the largest, most active technology clusters in the United States, contributing to our claim of developing a knowledge-based economy. While the state boasts 27 percent of its residents have a four-year college degree, Oakland County has 43 percent of its residents with a college degree or better. With an educated workforce like that, we have every reason to expect we can attract high-tech jobs within a knowledge-based economy.
Corp!: What’s on your must-read list?
Patterson: Sitting on my bed stand table is “Freakonomics.” It has been recommended to me by several really smart people. I’m looking forward to reading it soon.
I also like to read mysteries because it takes me back to the days when I was a prosecutor; a period in my life that I thoroughly enjoyed as the chief law enforcement officer of Oakland County.