Coulter resides in Ferndale and received an undergraduate degree from Michigan State University. He was an Oakland County Commissioner from 2002-2010, mayor of Ferndale from 2011-2019, and was appointed county executive in August of 2019. He has held several board positions with community non-profit groups.
STRUCTURE OF THE OFFICE
At the present time, with an appointed county executive, it would seem to members of the public that the office is operating with the same basic structure that has been in place during all the years L. Brooks Patterson held the office. What changes are you proposing, either in the structure to the executive office itself or to the general operation of the position? Explain the logic behind the changes. Will the changes involve added budget for operating the office?
As county executive, I have hired the most diverse leadership team in county history, including the first woman to serve as chief deputy executive and the first African American deputy executive. This team is complemented by a former city manager, and an expert in economic development, budgeting and procurement. I recently appointed the county’s first chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer to focus both on internal and external efforts in this important area. We have approached our work in a collaborative fashion evaluating every department from IT to facilities to seek improvements and efficiencies. We also conducted an outside review of our economic development department in order to create a new strategy for the next 10 years. We have maintained strict adherence to fiscal discipline approving a three-year balanced budget with progressive values and maintaining the county’s AAA bond rating in March.
EXECUTIVE VETO POWER
An elected county executive has veto power over ordinances, polices and resolutions passed by the county board of commissioners. Most recently, the county board, controlled by Democrats, adopted a policy that gives county employees the day off to vote in an election, by some estimates an added cost of $1 million for the county and its taxpayers. In that state voters approved no-reasons absentee voting, some say this new policy is unnecessary. Do you think the county board policy change should have been vetoed by the executive?
An active and engaged electorate is a bedrock principle and we need to do everything we can to eliminate barriers to voting and to promote civic engagement. I supported Oakland County joining with Macomb County, Wayne County, the state of Michigan and many private sector companies in providing election day as a day off for our employees. Our completely voluntary workforce of current poll workers is aging and it is vital that we encourage others to become involved in working polls and assisting our local clerks. This new policy costs $304,800 and was approved in the context of Oakland County’s balanced three-year budget.
How does a county executive balance the responsibility of focusing on the local county's needs, now and in the future, while at the same time being an active participant – rather than an impediment – when it comes to regional issues?
I believe we can both stand up for our residents and reach out to our regional partners. As county executive, I have done that by making Oakland County an an active member of the region again. For example, I felt strongly about re-joining the Detroit Regional Partnership. This 11-county partnership focuses on attracting businesses to the region. As the economic engine of the state, we know we are competing not against ourselves, or our neighbors in the region, but as a region against other parts of the country and globe. I am confident if we join together to attract out-of-state and global companies, Oakland County will get its fair share of business activity. I have also worked closely with leaders in the region during the pandemic coordinating on testing and health orders to keep our region and its residents safer from the spread of the virus.
The issue of mass transit for southeast Michigan has been a hotly debated topic for over four decades. More recently voters in this county have been less enthusiastic in terms of tax increases to support a system beyond what we now have through SMART or an expanded system that does not provide equal benefits for all Oakland County communities. At the same time, the future for the modes of personal transportation is a big question. Plus, one of the impacts of the pandemic crisis is the number of employees who have been working remotely, which raises a legitimate question of whether there will be even less demand for an expanded mass transit system. What are your thoughts on the mass transit issue?
A new regional transit plan must address the economic development needs of our communities, provide frequent and reliable service for workers, seniors and the disabled, utilize new technology and create flexible mobility options for communities in all parts of Oakland County. I believe that transit will make our region more competitive economically and attract younger people who want transit options. I am committed to finding a transit solution that will benefit our county and the entire region.
FUTURE COUNTY BUDGET ISSUES
Do you anticipate that the pandemic has created future budget problems for Oakland County? Please explain. If yes, how do you plan on addressing any shortfall?
Oakland County is in a strong fiscal position to weather the current COVID-19 crisis as we have past fiscal crises. We instituted belt tightening measures including a hiring freeze and a ban on travel earlier this year as we monitored state revenue sharing and other potential revenue impacts on the county budget. The good news is the third quarter projections continue to be positive for the year.The three-year balanced budget that I introduced in June takes an important step and ensures that each department is living within its means without relying on any use of the fund balance. Oakland County has built up a $245 million fund balance and it is important that is preserved for one-time emergency use or key investments. My administration also retained the County’s AAA bond rating which is a sign of our fiscal strength.
RACISM AS HEALTH CRISIS
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has declared racism as a public health crisis and is appointing a committee to address this issue and has ordered implicit bias training for all state employees, including everyone in the administration. Should Oakland County be taking any special action or creating policies or programs to address this issue on the local level? Please provide details for your response.
Our Oakland Together agenda holds at its core the values of diversity, equity and inclusion. This is not just one person’s responsibility, or one county initiative or program but rather the foundation upon which all of our efforts are built. Working with the board of commissioners we established the county’s first chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer last year, and Robin Carter-Cooper is now part of our senior leadership team. We have also made permanent in our most recent budget the position devoted to implementing the board of commissioners’ resolution to make Oakland County a “Welcoming County” for immigrants and refugees. In coming months, we will undertake an internal effort to engage employees in cultural awareness, evaluate program delivery through an independent review and create hiring and contracting metrics upon which our efforts are evaluated and judged.
Oakland County is the home to hundreds of inland lakes and sits at the headwaters of six major rivers feeding the state’s waterways. Should the county be taking a stronger role in protecting the environment through a more aggressive approach with ordinances regulating items and activities that threaten our natural resources? If so, what would you suggest?
Our most urgent environmental threat is climate change. My administration is focused on developing a plan to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, utilizing renewable energy and increasing energy efficiency. We will also create a sustainability fund to assist local governments in their environmental sustainability goals and establish a county-wide leadership team to build consensus around bold strategies to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 for our county. Additionally, PFAS, lead, and other contaminants are a grave threat to the more than 1,450 lakes in Oakland County as well as the drinking water in every Oakland County home, school and business. Which is why, as county executive I’ve testified in Lansing and advocated for the need to strengthen state polluter pay laws and improve transparency around the sites that sit in our communities contaminated without adequate funds to remediate or even monitor. Protecting our lakes and water is a top priority for my administration.
WHY VOTE FOR YOU
Why should voters select you over your opponent? Please be specific in drawing your comparison.
I have achieved results as county executive, maintained our AAA bond rating and led during a crisis. I was a unifying voice after the passing of L. Brooks Patterson and my collaborative leadership style has allowed my team to move quickly to achieve results and pull everyone together during the pandemic. I have demonstrated that you can stand up to President Trump’s agenda when it is wrong for Oakland County. When Planned Parenthood was defunded, I stepped into to ensure family planning was available to Oakland County women. When immigrants and refugees were demonized, I made Oakland County a welcoming county. The road ahead calls for a county executive who is already implementing the plans to address our challenges and seize our opportunities.
Kowall resides in White Lake and attended Oakland Community College and served a five-year carpenter apprenticeship. He was White Lake Township Supervisor from 2004-2010, State Representative from 1999-2003, State Senator from 2011-2019 and served as Senate Majority Floor Leader from 2015-2019. He had also worked in the Brooks Patterson administration.
STRUCTURE OF THE OFFICE
While the structure is similar to that of L. Brooks Patterson, the assignments are different. I would better align the talents and expertise of each deputy executive, and spread out the responsibilities more equitably. Economic Development, Finance and IT are separate disciplines. I would also maintain department directors/managers to run the operations of each department and reserve deputy executives for the larger issues such as overall oversight, developing policy and planning the future direction of the county. Such realignments would be budget neutral.
EXECUTIVE VETO POWER
Yes. Not only is this costly to the taxpayers, they now have another day in November when they can’t access county departments or services. We already have Veterans’ Day on November 11th and then Thanksgiving Day weekend towards the end of November, and now an “Election Day” holiday.
Anyone elected to an Oakland County office – be it countywide or county commissioners – should put the interests of Oakland County people, who they represent, first. I think Brooks had the right philosophy when he stated, “If it benefits the region and it’s good for Oakland County, I’ll support it. If it benefits the region and is neutral for Oakland County, I’ll support it. If it benefits some in the region, but hurts Oakland County, I will oppose it.” Oakland County takes a bad rap for supposedly not being regional. We launched Automation Alley and the Courts and Law Enforcement Management Information Systems (CLEMIS), we helped to support and grow these initiatives well past our county’s borders to the benefit of the region and beyond. We came together with the region to establish the Cobo Hall (now FCS) Authority and the SMART/DDOT system. We come to the table as active members of the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG), and the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA). We offer our eGovernment services and expertise to many local governments in Oakland County, the region and throughout the state.
I think you pretty much said it all. I do support the efforts by local government to establish transportation systems and authorities. These work for the areas they serve and could be expanded upon as needed. If there is to be any consideration of mass transit in the future, all parts of the county must be included in the development of a plan, including meaningful input as to the service and taxation aspects of such a plan. I believe in local control and no local governments should be forced into a system they don’t want or benefit from.
FUTURE BUDGET ISSUES
The pandemic will no doubt create future budget problems. Well over 50 percent of Oakland County’s general fund revenue is generated through property tax. Residential property values are holding, but will homeowners - hard hit by the pandemic – be able to pay their taxes? I believe we could see an uptick in mortgage and tax foreclosures and overall growth in taxable values will be slower than forecasted. The real significant risk is in the commercial sector, with brick-and-mortar retail businesses closing for good. That, coupled with the “work from anywhere” trend, will leave much open office space, leading to lower, income-based valuations and revenues. Also, as the state seeks to balance its budget and to fill COVID-19 based revenue holes, Oakland County’s $27.5 million in revenue sharing payments is at risk. Also, the state is already “fund-shifting,” moving funds from such sources as the Convention Facility Fund ($10M) intended for substance abuse programs, to the state’s general fund. The Court Equity Fund and the Childcare fund could be at risk of cuts, along with many others.
RACISM AS HEALTH CRISIS
It would be hard to ignore the disparity in health, given COVID-19 numbers in more urbanized, minority populations. I believe we could best approach this from the communities up and not take a top-down approach. Let’s not just throw money at the issue, instead let’s be deliberative on how we go about eliminating disparities. First of all, we should start by having community conversations to discover where problems exist and what barriers are preventing minorities from accessing health care. Follow that up with collaboration on innovative, creative solutions having measurable outcomes. We must identify other organizations or agencies that have programs in place to see how we can partner with them, while avoiding duplication of efforts. At the same time, we need to evaluate the effectiveness of grants and programs already in place. There certainly is room for improvement in the implementation of existing programs. Current practice is big on talk and short on action. We need solutions and action, not just press releases and media events.
First of all, the county cannot enact ordinances that supersede state law. We do, however, have a responsibility to care for the tremendous natural resources we are blessed with. They are integral to our quality of life and our home values. The county can help monitor lake and water quality as it has in the past through various programs, giving early warning to algal blooms and other issues. We should also make sure our water level control structures such as dams and weirs are maintained and repaired to prevent an environmental disaster similar to the Midland dam failures. Situations such as the “green ooze” on I-696 pose a danger to our health and environment. Our water resources commissioner and our county health department should be vigilant to prevent or remedy similar situations. Laws already on the books must be enforced. The county executive could also play a significant role in convening local and regional governments and acting together on environmental goals. After all, invasive species do not know boundaries. There is much a county executive can do, also, to advocate at the state and federal level.
WHY VOTE FOR YOU
As a state Representative and Senate Majority Floor Leader, I was a cheerleader for Oakland County and always kept the county uppermost in mind during policy and budgetary decisions. During my tenure in the legislature, I served in many leadership roles and came up with creative solutions for complicated problems. I have successfully taken on many difficult legislative issues, such as the autonomous vehicle bills I spearheaded. I also stepped in to help out with controversial scrap metal legislation, bringing all parties together to enact responsible, sensible laws curtailing the problem of metal theft. I currently maintain many relationships within state government that will be beneficial to Oakland County. As White Lake Township Supervisor, I brought $95 million worth of new development to our township during the Great Recession. I worked collaboratively and have developed good relationships with most of Oakland County’s local elected officials and continue to do so, especially when we encounter an issue that unites us. I believe that in order to make Oakland County strong, we need to recognize and consider the input of each city, village and township in our county.