Patterson faces different landscape in Oakland County

By thauckthauck (1226977698|%a, %b %e at %I:%M%p)

This article is an update to one I posted before about the race for Oakland County Executive. Although not directly transit related, incumbent elect L. Brooks Patterson has been a strong voice opposed to using public money to develop light rail in Southeast Michigan. Does the changing political landscape of Oakland County require that Mr. Patterson reevaluate his opinions on public spending? This article seems to suggest that it does. The original can be accessed here.

Catherine Jun / The Detroit News

PONTIAC — Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson could face one of his most challenging, toughest terms yet as the economy slides into recession and Democrats make healthy inroads in county politics.

The 69-year-old Republican's election victory last week against Southfield mayor Brenda Lawrence handed him another four years as the county's top chief — and a busy agenda from the start.

Patterson is now at the helm of a county much different than what he inherited nearly two decades ago. Though still the richest in the state, Oakland County, too, tallies record foreclosures and bloated unemployment rolls that could soon grow even bigger.

The once GOP-dominated terrain has changed, too. Migration from Detroit now splits the county evenly between Democrats and Republicans, according to one poll, and that brings different ideas on how government should run. Despite all of this, Patterson says he will lead as he always has: with a focus on job and business growth and a tight reign on government spending.

"Patterson runs Oakland County like a corporation," said Diane Harnisch, executive director of the county's Republican Party. "I don't think when people vote for Brooks it's a partisan vote."

Patterson's administration has in recent months assembled officials from the state, county and Auburn Hills — home to Chrysler LLC headquarters — and has begun weaving safety nets for what is expected to be tides of laid off workers: job fairs, skills retraining programs, welfare resources.

"We've started to strategize and play the 'what if' game," said Peter Auger, city manager of Auburn Hills, home to the headquarters of Chrysler Corp. "Even though it's a challenging time, it's not time to pull back the horns but charge forward."

The last year tested Patterson and his staff as they reworked the budget to plug a hole of millions of dollars due to property values falling in the county for the first time in four decades. Property taxes account for more than half the county's budget revenue. They responded by eliminating 150 positions and closing a sheriff's boot camp.

With property values in the county predicted to continue their downward slide, the county will need to further hone the skill to do more with less. "We have to downsize government," said Laurie VanPelt, the county's director of management and budget. "Right now, we have to identify what areas need to be cut."

Patterson shouldn't get much resistance on getting approval for bitter antidotes, since the 25-member county commission, the county's legislative body, still maintains the same slender Republican majority — 13 to 12 — as before Election Day.

But some observers say Patterson can't ignore the growing Democratic tide, which gave as much as 42 percent of votes cast in the executive race to Lawrence versus his 58 percent.

"Neither the Democrats or the Republicans have all the right answers," said John S. Klemanski, political science professor at Oakland University. "So can you find some ideas from the other side that are worth pursuing? My thought is 'yes.'"

Southfield voter Ernest Needle, 59, says he hopes Patterson will adopt some parts of Lawrence's platform, such as mass transit and cooperation on refurbishing Cobo Center.

"He should take heed," said Needle. "Now that everybody is tuned into saving energy and energy efficiency, maybe there's a need for people to take mass transit into downtown Detroit."

Patterson has always maintained he's not against either projects, but doesn't want taxpayers to shoulder the cost burdens.

"Show me how you're going to pay for it," Patterson said.

He further dismissed the electoral margin, attributing the mass of votes for his opponent to the Obama factor. "I wasn't running against Brenda Lawrence. I was running against Barack Obama," Patterson said.

"My priorities have pretty much been on target and I think the voters agree," he added. "I'm going to keep pouring it on as I have the last 16 years."

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