Pontiac — Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson made it clear Wednesday night during his annual address where he stood on regional public transit.
After discussing his county’s economic successes, current and future jobs and innovative programs in place in the county, Patterson appeared to draw a line in the sand over a proposed regional transit tax. He said nine communities had already opted out of joining public transit in a failed 2016 millage. He said he’s now faced with a renewed push to develop and fund regional transit.
“I want you to know that as long as I’m county executive, I will respect the wishes of the voters of the select nine Oakland County opt-out communities,” he said. “I will not betray them and slip some, or all of them, against their will, into a tax machine from which they can expect little or no return on their investment.
“… I can’t do it. I won’t do it,” he said to a standing ovation. “And I will never, ever betray the public trust I respect and represent.”
Lack of a regional transit system in Metro Detroit has been blamed by real estate developer Dan Gilbert and others as a major reason Detroit was passed up by Amazon recently for the location of the company’s second regional headquarters.
Patterson has been cold on regional transit for years, citing how his county already sends more than its share of tax dollars to Lansing without equitable return. Many areas of the county would not see any benefit from regional transit with the plans presented, he said.
In a recent public meeting between the Big Four county leaders — Patterson, Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel, Wayne County Executive Warren Evans and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan — Patterson voiced opposition to the renewed push for regional transit because he had not seen a master plan, a sentiment echoed by Hackel. Patterson and Hackel want to see local roads and public bus service between Detroit and suburbs improved.
Duggan and others have said they hope to see a regional transit tax plan before voters in November.
In November 2016, a $4.6 billion plan that would have added a commuter rail between Detroit and Ann Arbor and put bus rapid transit lines on some major roads was defeated by about 18,000 votes of 1.8 million cast. Wayne and Washtenaw county voters approved it but Oakland voters were split; Macomb voters rejected the proposal.
Patterson told the audience that since 1996 and through 2017, opt-in communities paid almost $352 million in taxes to support regional transit.
“That is the most of any RTA county: almost $37 million more than Macomb and a whopping $107 million more than Wayne,” Patterson said.
Patterson said he offered an Oakland County plan that would include 24 opt-in communities that support the Oakland County Public Transportation Authority, which provides services through SMART. He said Wayne and Washtenaw counties and Detroit transit advocates found the tax to fund regional transit would be “inadequate,” Patterson said, and was asked to “force into the tax plan” nine additional communities that, over 20 years, would pay $1.7 billion to regional transit. “More, of course,” Patterson said, “than any other county.”
“... Some political leaders south of Eight Mile want me to do it anyway, he said. “Washtenaw wants it done; editors of the regional papers are all chastising me for not participating and not forcing in these communities against their will; and certain members of the business community ... have ostracized me because I will not force those nine communities into a new tax plan.
“They argue, “That would be a mark of leadership — to bring in those nine communities and obtain that additional revenue of approximately $506 million, whether they like it or not. They call it leadership. I call it betrayal,” he said.
A transportation advocate was discouraged by Patterson's stance.
"It's pretty devastating that he continues to be so parochial in his thinking, so narrowly focused on the wants of each individual town without recognition that our lives don’t end at our city's borders," said Megan Owens, executive director for the nonprofit Transportation Riders United. "We are a region, and the only way we as a region will succeed is if we make a quality investment in transit. He seems to be reaffirming Amazon’s perception that we’re not a modern metro region. There are a lot of voters who really do want to see transit come to their communities."
The county executive’s stance on regional transit also drew a rebuke from one Democrat in the crowd.
“Amazon, and its 50,000 good paying jobs, rejected our region because of outdated L. Brooks Patterson thinking,” said Oakland County Commissioner Dave Woodward, D-Royal Oak, chair of the Oakland County Democratic Commissioners Caucus.
“He is completely out of touch. We heard tonight his disdain for improving regional transit, and little or nothing about workforce preparedness, fixing our roads and sewers, or raising the wages of working people,” said Dave Woodward, D-Royal Oak. “Democrats are committed to addressing these issues with or without Brooks’ support. Over the next couple months, we will propose bold, yet achievable solutions to address our problems, move our community forward, and secure prosperity for all in our county and not just the rich.”
Before dimming the hopes of transit advocates, Patterson laid out the past year’s successes in the county.
More than one company a week located or expanded in Oakland County in the past year, bringing $1.2 billion in investments, he said.
Patterson said the record county investments were made by 62 companies. The investments created 9,500 jobs and retained 8,400 jobs, he said.
It is “sizzling news,” he said.
Patterson said 27 of the companies were international firms investing $305 million in new or expanded facilities.
Companies from Brazil, China, Germany, India, Israel, Japan and South Korea located or expanded in Oakland County, he said, adding “these countries represent some of the largest economies in the world.”
Patterson singled out:
■Denso International investing in a $75 million expansion of its North American regional headquarters in Southfield
■Sweden-based Autoliv’s $22 million consolidation of operations in Southfield
■South Korea-based LG Electronic’s $25 million for a 250,000-square-foot assembly plant in Hazel Park
■India-based Mahindra plans for a new $22-million plant in Auburn Hills to manufacture an off-road vehicle called the Roxor, and create 105 jobs.
Robotics continued to be big news in southeast Michigan, which Patterson said has the highest number of robots in commercial use in the world. More than two-thirds of the robotics companies are located in Oakland County, a total of 85 employing 4,400 people.
Patterson also ticked off how strides have been made in speculative building — developers investing in former industrial sites without guarantee of any commercial leases — and also the creation of private aircraft suites at Oakland International Airport.
The upbeat address and good news was frequently greeted with applause from supporters.
It also signaled to those anxious about Patterson’s recovery from health issues that he is in command of steering the county. Patterson recently had a pacemaker implanted. His heart rate had dropped so low that he had fainted at home and was rushed to a hospital for emergency surgery for the implant, according to published reports.
“Yes, I had a pacemaker added to my other nuts and bolts I’ve picked up along the way,” cracked Patterson, referring to stints with previous health problems and artery blockages.
“… I’ve had two cardiologists tell me that once (the pacemaker) is functioning at its peak, I will experience a rush of energy and feel 20 years younger,” said Patterson, who hinted last year this will be likely be his final term as the county’s top elected official.
“I ran into one of them (doctors) a couple days ago and he said, ‘How’s it going?’ to which I replied, ‘I think you’re right. I’m looking for a house in a good school district.’”
Patterson acknowledged innovative county programs such as Main Street initiatives; the opening of a new state-of-the-art animal shelter and the planned opening of an off-the-road vehicle park.
Challenges exist, he said. He said opioid abuse is epidemic, withn deaths and hospitalizations more than doubling in recent years.
Patterson, 79, was elected to his seventh term in 2012. He also was the county’s prosecuting attorney for 16 years and is widely regarded as the prominent voice of the state’s Republican Party.
Staff Writer Mark Hicks contributed.