Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson was the keynote speaker at the Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce’s 8th annual public policy breakfast.
During the course of his comments, Patterson said Oakland County got to where it is now — with a AAA bond rating, a nice surplus and jobs on the rise — through changes to the benefits packages.
“We’ve had 20-some adjustments that really have put us in good shape,” he said. “In 1984, we discontinued longevity pay. What that meant is if you were with the county more than 10 years, you got 10 percent. Well, we discontinued doing that. That was a handcuff in the old days.”
He said the county has subsequently saved $55 million in payments.
“In 2006, we discontinued the traditional defined benefit and went to our DCP plan, defined contribution,” he said. “On that one, we saved $400 million. If you take all of the adjustments we’ve saved to benefits and so forth, the total we’ve saved is $650 million. That’s why the county is in such good financial shape. We started a long time ago.”
Patterson reiterated his mantra: “thoughtful management vs. crisis management,” and said this is the result of decades of thoughtful management.
“Now the benefits have come home to roost,” he said.
Patterson added that Oakland is the only county in the United States to have paid off its legacy costs.
“You hear so much about legacy costs or promises made for retired health care,” he said. “We’re done. We paid it off a couple of years ago.”
He called it a win/win/win all around.
As to the future of Oakland County, Patterson said that the county once had all its proverbial eggs in the automotive basket, and that he couldn’t get out of that basket fast enough.
He said county officials could see that there would be a change in the kind of jobs available for the future.
“We went out there and did our research, and we found 10 sectors for employment in the future, and those sectors, of course, are the ones we now call the emergent sectors,” he said. “Every month, my staff gives me a report on how we’re doing in bringing in business in these 10 sectors.”
The sectors are advanced electronics, advanced materials and nanotechnology, aerospace, alternative energy, communication and IT, defense and homeland security — which Patterson said is one of the Top 10 growth sectors — film and digital media, insurance, Medical Main Street, and robotics.
He noted that since the inception of this program in 2004, the county has brought in 205 companies within those sectors. Those companies have invested $1.8 billion and created 26,000 jobs, and have paid $46 million to the federal state and local units of government. Of that, Oakland County got $4.3 million.
“So it’s paying for itself,” Patterson said.
“Diversification is the future of Oakland County,” Patterson stated. “We’re going into the high-tech sector. You might call it the knowledge-based economy. That’s where I’m gambling that I think this country’s going to go.”
He believes a knowledge-based economy will result in sustainable, high-paying jobs in the future.
Patterson also said it will take about 25 years before the county gets to the diversification he thinks is necessary. At that point, the county will likely be recession resistant.
He said he has got 109 people in the county’s Economic Development Department “laser focused” on emerging sectors.
He also said the budget dominates in this climate, and that the Budget Task Force works on it every week.
“But we still can walk and chew gum,” he said, adding that the Center for Digital Government has recognized Oakland as the most digitally progressive county in the country.
“For two years in a row, we’ve been ranked No. 1 out of 3,000 counties,” he said. “So we’re doing other things besides the budget.”
He pointed out that the county has had time to develop quality of life issues. One of them is Arts, Beats and Eats, which started in 1999.
“It’s now a major festival, ranked in the Top 10 in the country as far as attraction,” he said.
Another program is Count Your Steps, another major attraction.
“I asked my friends in the corporate sector to help buy pedometers for every third and fourth grader in Oakland County,” Patterson said. “We walk for a whole month.”
He said the kids have walked a combined 17 billion steps.
The Brooksie Way, named for Patterson’s late son, Brooks Stuart Patterson, who died in a 2007 snowmobile accident, is a half marathon Patterson initiated as a physical fitness initiative.
He said it grows every year and that profits are put into a fund called the Brooksie Way Mini.
“Any organization in Oakland County that has as its mission, its purpose for that group, to improve the health of its membership or improve the health of the community, we’ll help fund their costs,” he said.
During a subsequent question and answer session, Patterson spoke of the county’s efforts to attract foreign investment. He said Automation Alley, the technology and business association established in the 1990s, takes two or three trade missions a year.
He also noted that the county does a lot of international recruiting.
“We now have 840 foreign firms in Oakland County, creating about 140,000 to 145,000 jobs,” Patterson said.
He also pointed out that the county takes firms to foreign countries.
“They want to expand into the international market, so it’s a two way street, it’s not just imports,” he said.
L. Brooks Patterson addresses Hispanic business forum