Coulter touts Oakland County's progress in COVID-19 battle, plan to spend $244M in federal aid

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Oakland County Executive David Coulter reflected Wednesday night on the effects of COVID-19 and laid out plans for $244 million in federal relief aid to help small businesses and bolster mental health and education support services in the county. 

In his second State of the County address, the resilience ofthe workforce, businesses and 1.2 million residents during the pandemic played a prominent position. Coulter stressed that the dark times were nearing an end, and an infusion of federal funds and promising vaccination rates will speed Oakland County, the state's second most populated, back to normalcy. 

Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter addresses the media and others during a press conference in Pontiac, Friday, April 2, 2021.

So far, 64% of Oakland County residents 16 and up have received one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and 60.7% of those ages 12 and up have, Oakland County Health Department data show. 

"The good news is that we have demonstrated when we put our minds to it, we have the ability to tackle the big and difficult challenges that confront us," Coulter said during a 30-minute prerecorded video address at Stagecrafters at the Baldwin Theater in Royal Oak. "When our generation was called upon to address this unprecedented global and economic crisis, let history remember that we answered the call."

The county's share of the federal American Rescue Plan will help small businesses and nonprofit organizations, target investments in mental health services and education support as students return to school in the fall; and will help women return to the workplace, Coulter said. 

"We don't need to wait for the end of this pandemic to build our future. We must start now," he said. "The American Rescue Plan is going to help us make some transformational changes for our future."

Coulter, under the theme "Building Oakland County's Future Now," also discussed other initiatives, including a plan to ensure college education is attainable for the majority of Oakland County's residents. 

The Oakland80 Initiative seeks to ensure 80% of the county's adults have a college education or certificate by 2030.

“The Oakland80 program will get underway this summer and will fan out across the county to give residents the assistance they need to get into college or skilled training programs," Coulter said. 

More than 7,300 county residents have been approved for the county's Michigan Reconnect program, which could provide free community college tuition. More than 10,400 other residents, he said, have been approved for Futures for Frontliners, a scholarship program for tuition-free education beyond high school.

"If we want to compete globally, we have to provide our residents a path to greater success and good paying jobs," he said. "This is how we secure the future for both our residents and the companies that are looking to locate here and create jobs for our skilled workforce."

Last year, Coulter’s speech came the month before Michigan recorded its first confirmed case of the coronavirus. At that time, he was six months in to the job of filling out the unexpired term of former executive L. Brooks Patterson, who died in August 2019.

Coulter on Wednesday also hit on the importance of criminal justice reforms, including his hope to establish a public defender’s office within the next two years to provide indigent defendants with attorneys. 

The county's progress on efforts including its Health360, a partnership program that extends health services to residents regardless of insurance status or their ability to pay. Since August, the program has provided services to 1,100 county residents. 

With the partnership, the county this month, he said, launched an expanded and renovated healthcare clinic in Pontiac.

"If this pandemic has taught us anything, it's that a program like this cannot be delayed," he said. 

Coulter also has appointed a chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer and he created a new position with the Oakland County Board of Commissioners for a chief sustainability officer to focus on green energy initiatives. 

Coulter also took time Wednesday to recognize the performance of county employees, who continued to provide services and keep residents and businesses safe throughout the public health crisis, he said.

Oakland County Michigan Works! employees, he said, were stretched to their limits, volunteering to assist the state Unemployment Insurance Agency to field more than 800,000 calls from people who lost their jobs and needed unemployment benefits as businesses in the state shut down to help stop the spread of the virus.

"The workers in the six Oakland County Michigan Works! offices took on the additional role of becoming a call center to often angry and frustrated residents who are just trying to feed their families, make the rent or keep their lights on," he said. 

Coulter ended on a hopeful note.

"We're nearing the vaccination rate we need to end this pandemic in its tracks," he said. "Failure is not an option if we want to beat it."

David Woodward, Chairman of the Board of Commissioners, said he shared the view of Coulter, a fellow democrat. 

“Tonight’s address affirms our commitment to building an inclusive Oakland County where everyone can succeed,” said Woodward. “This is vitally important, not just today as we emerge from the pandemic, but as the guiding vision for our future."

Regarding recovery from the pandemic, Woodward said: “Our county is strong and we know the future is even brighter for all of us if we keep doing this together…We did a lot. We learned a lot. And we are excited about this next phase as we continue our economic recovery.”

(248) 338-0319