Howes: Oakland executive focuses on 'not screwing up'
It’s all about the money — or close to it, anyway.
Be it lower taxes and debt or three-year budgeting and the all-important bond rating, Oakland County’s financial management is a model for local government nationwide, a darling of credit ratings agencies. The new county executive, Dave Coulter, says he intends to keep it that way.
Doesn’t matter that he’s the first Democrat to lead the county, that he was the mayor of comparatively tiny Ferndale, or that he ascended to the job in a messy partisan circus that heaped political disrepute on both Republicans and Democrats. Doesn’t even matter (yet) that he remains unsure whether he’ll run for the late L. Brooks Patterson’s chair in 2020, though I’m guessing he will.
What matters is whether he can realize the political balancing he envisions: manage the public's money like Team Brooks, retain the markets’ Triple-A confidence in the county and “prove,” he said this week, that he “can do this job and Democrats can govern.”
That would be a political trifecta in these polarized times. And achieving it would be a nightmare of sorts for Michigan Republicans accustomed to seeing the state's second most populous county controlled by them, not Democrats turning the historically red county at least purple.
"I want to prove ... that a mayor from a liberal town like Ferndale can come up and do this job," he told The Detroit News this week. "I'm not naive. I'd like to keep this as non-political as I can. I'm 100% focused on not screwing this up."
Good luck, because the hyper-partisan free-for-all that culminated in his selection suggests that may be easier said than done in Oakland County. My suggestion: consider the examples of Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and former Gov. Rick Snyder — yes, you heard that right.
Rivaled only by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer as the most powerful Democrat in the state, Duggan understands how business, economic competitiveness and working with Republicans helps continue the city's revival. And Snyder, a nominal, decidedly moderate Republican, did more to help Democratic Detroit than any governor of either party over at least the last 50 years.
Their implicit lesson: as much as rank partisanship may please ideologues on both ends of the political spectrum, it doesn't do much for the residents whose tax dollars fund the public trough. Coulter appears to understand this simple equation, touting his intention to keep the county open for business, to keep tax rates stable, to create an economic atmosphere that helps existing employers grow.
If Coulter delivers, and runs for a full term on the 2020 ballot that would include President Donald Trump at the top, that might just be what the county GOP gets. Emphasis on the word "deliver," because the reality of Oakland County's solid books is that they are the product of sustained, smart financial management by Republicans.
Screwing with that disciplined formula would rank among the dumbest political moves imaginable. Which is exactly why Coulter's already explored bringing back members of Patterson's financial team (after the required post-retirement hiatus), why he enthusiastically endorses the county's multi-year budgeting, why he touts two tax cuts in Ferndale while he was mayor.
It's also why he's planning a "road show" to meet with the credit ratings agencies once the County Commission finishes up a budget that's more a product of Patterson's team than Coulter's. His core message to The Street: more of the same, financially speaking.
That'll be easier to say than do in today's politics. But Oakland County's rep among investors and ratings agencies is too stellar to risk tarnishing. A year ago, Standard & Poor's Ratings Direct said its Triple A rating reflects a "very strong economy ... very strong management with strong financial policies ...strong budgetary performance ...."
It cited the county's "very strong budgetary flexibility ... very strong liquidity ... low overall net debt ..." and a "strong institutional framework. The county's very strong managerial characteristics are significant contributors to its very strong budgetary flexibility and consistently strong budgetary performance."
Moody's Investors Service attributed its high Aaa rating to the county's "very healthy financial position and low fixed-cost burden that enhances the county's capacity to absorb unanticipated changes in costs or revenue."
That's an impressive legacy to inherit. It'd be a shame to screw it up.
Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.