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Oakland County executive pays outstanding water bills after one year

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Oakland County Executive David Coulter failed to pay his home's water bill for longer than a year, racking up an outstanding balance of $558 that he paid the day The Detroit News asked him about it.

Coulter said in a statement issued through a spokesman the failure to pay his water bills was "a mistake." The 59-year-old leader noted that the bills have now "been paid in full."

“Unfortunately, this is the one bill I don’t have automated," Coulter added. "It was an oversight."

Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter.

The Oakland County commissioners selected Coulter, the former mayor of Ferndale, to fill the top political office in the state's second most populous county in August. The appointment came after Republican former Executive L. Brooks Patterson died.

In October, Coulter, a Democrat, launched his campaign to keep the $201,193-a-year position in the 2020 election.

Coulter's campaign also announced this week that it had raised $216,571 over the final two months of 2019 and had more than $200,000 available to spend on the 2020 election going into the new year.

Coulter is expected to face Oakland County Treasurer Andy Meisner in the Democratic primary. The Republican primary is still taking shape, but Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard has said he is not pursuing the top post.

"This report shows the confidence people have in the work we are doing for Oakland County, and I'm grateful for their encouragement. We are on the right track and our efforts will only continue to accelerate this year," Coulter said in a statement announcing the fundraising haul.

Coulter paid his water bill on Nov. 26, 2018, but didn't make another payment until Monday, the day The News sent him written questions. In the meantime, he missed four quarterly payment deadlines and was charged $50 in late payment penalties, according to available city records.

To be assessed a late payment penalty in Ferndale, a water customer has to be more than a month late in paying the bill. The late penalty is 10% of the unpaid amount.

Unlike other municipalities, Ferndale has an internal policy of not shutting off water service as a punitive measure against any customer, said Kara Sokol, the city's director of communications.

Detroit has shut off service for thousands of customers who didn't pay their water bills, a policy that has sparked controversy in the nation's poorest big city.

Under current Detroit policy that went into effect in spring 2019, customers are considered delinquent if they are 60 days behind on their monthly bills and owe $150. But they aren’t at risk for shutoff until their unpaid balances reach $750 or more. 

The city code for Pleasant Ridge, Ferndale's neighbor, allows a water shutoff if a property becomes three months delinquent on payments. 

Rocky Raczkowski, chairman of the Oakland County Republican Party, blasted Coulter for not living up to his promise to operate under the same financial constraints that Patterson did .

Patterson was first elected Oakland County executive in 1992 and retained a coveted AAA bond rating among investment rating services for the county's financial management and multi-year balanced budgets. 

"Not paying a water bill is not an oversight," Raczkowski argued, noting that Coulter made more money than the average household in the county.

A candidate not paying their water bill wouldn't be the deciding issue in a race but certainly "doesn't look good," said John Sellek, CEO of the political consulting firm Harbor Strategic Public Affairs in Lansing and a former campaign strategist for Republican former Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette. 

Since being appointed to the executive post in August, Coulter has played his cards pretty well, Sellek said, adding that his "governing honeymoon" is about over with the looming August primary election.

Detroit News Staff Writer Christine Ferretti contributed