Opinion: Bad signs for Oakland County's bottom line
You know about canaries in coal mines? Back in the old days, miners would carry canaries down with them. If the air went bad, canaries would feel it first. Up in Oakland County, 2019 has been a year of regime change. The Board of Commissioners flipped to Democrat with Ferndale Mayor Dave Coulter as new boss. So why are the canaries choking?
To start out, remember that Oakland is famous for its fiscal management. Oakland County is to honest sound budgeting what Frankenmuth is to chicken. Its unofficial motto is “AAA bond rating.” Anything that fudges those practices is a croaking canary.
First coughing birdie: Early this year, the new Democrat majority Board of Commissioners halted the practice of including "fiscal notes" with budget items. A fiscal note is a financial impact statement: How much will something cost? Show it in dollars, projected out over three to five years, and how it's paid for in the budget. Then we can have an informed and transparent discussion over costs and priorities. But not anymore.
Second canary is a new “non-discrimination policy.” This greatly expands the old one to cover things like “gender expression and identity.” No one argues with protecting veterans, marital status. But gender identity and expression is a radical and far-from-settled framework, currently protested by conservative Christians and radical lesbians alike. There’s lots to debate on this resolution, but one of the biggest is: How much will it cost?
This policy applies to “providers/vendors, or individuals performing work and/or services for Oakland County.” In other words, Oakland refuses to buy or contract with anyone who does not comply. Up to now, Oakland’s contracting was simple: best quality for lowest price. But New Oakland County wants to use county government as an instrument for social engineering. So how much will it cost? Oops, we don’t show that anymore.
Is cutting-edge gender policy worth fewer deputies on duty, less restaurant inspectors, immunizations, open hours at the clinic, home visiting nurses, lead-in-water testing, children’s health care services?
Or maybe this is the game: Pass a standard few can meet, and then grant exceptions. This is the road to corruption. When the standards are open and simple, and no politician or bureaucrat can snag a contract, it’s not worth bribing anyone. But if it’s an exception-granting system, buying officials is a cost of doing business.
Transparency’s gone. What about accountability? Well, there are voters and Federal prosecutors, but that’s not all. You can fool some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool an auditor; not for long. The biggest auditors are Wall Street folks who grant or withhold the coveted AAA bond rating. Oakland’s already behind the curve.
The top AAA L. Brooks Patterson team is gone. That’s a big red flag. Another is the condition of adjacent cities and counties. A big one is fiscal policy: The Patterson fiscal system is already watered down. Add in the non-discrimination policy, whose financial impact is unknown. Then there's the fact the county commission has passed a measure giving employees the day off on Election Day. That’s an old union tactic, which benefits Democrats. How much will that cost?
No one lives forever, no political administration permanent. But Oakland has been the platinum standard and the economic engine of Michigan. Who wants to be the guy who lost the AAA bond rating? That’s not much of an election platform.
Chuck Moss is a former Oakland County Commissioner, and chair of the Finance Committee. He also served in the state House of Representatives as chair of the House Appropriations Committee.