by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
The relationship between Detroit, the nation’s poorest city, and its northern neighbors often resembles a border dispute, characterized on both sides by anger, resentment, fear, and caricature. Detroit’s July 18 bankruptcy filing is merely the latest chapter in the long dysfunctional marriage between a once-thriving city and its suburbs.
If there’s one person who best embodies this psychodrama, it’s L. Brooks Patterson, the county executive of Oakland and for decades one of Detroit’s harshest critics. Patterson, 74, who was elected to his sixth term last fall, has held the post since 1993. He previously made a name for himself as county prosecutor by leading the fight against school desegregation through busing. He’s a unique combination of green-eyeshade superego and raging demagogic id. His pitch—both to voters and businesses—is that Oakland County is everything Detroit is not, and that it doesn’t need Detroit to survive. “In the old days they’d say, ‘As Detroit goes, so goes Michigan,’?” he says in his office in Waterford. “That’s bulls-?-?-. As Oakland County goes, so goes Michigan.”
Patterson oversees 4,000 employees and a budget of $776 million for fiscal 2013. In the 1990s he switched county workers from defined benefit pensions to 401(k)-type plans, and new hires no longer get lifetime retiree health care—instead they receive health savings accounts. Changes like these have saved hundreds of millions of dollars and eliminated the legacy labor costs that plague not only Detroit but city and state governments all over the country. Oakland is part of a select group of U.S. counties that enjoy a Triple-A bond rating.