County executives discuss issues facing the region

By: Andy Kozlowski | Metro | Published June 8, 2022


LATHRUP VILLAGE — The leaders of Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties met May 11 to discuss topics ranging from mass transit, infrastructure and electric vehicles to a divided workforce, rancor in politics, and support for mental health.

The Detroit Regional Chamber hosted the three-way talk between Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel, Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter and Wayne County Executive Warren Evans as part of its “Advocacy in Action” series. The forum was held in Lathrup Village at The Mint at Michigan First Conference Center.


On the value of a strong Detroit
The three executives were asked for their thoughts about Detroit’s ability to attract big events, like the NFL draft, which it secured for 2024, and whether it benefits the region.

“No question about it,” Hackel said. “Detroit is the urban center of southeast Michigan. We may have little pockets of communities within Macomb County, Oakland or Wayne that have their thriving downtowns and all that, but … if you don’t have a thriving Detroit, that is a challenge for all of us. And so, to see the excitement of the entertainment and sports venues in attracting major events like that is something that benefits the entire region, without question.”

The others agreed.

“This is metro Detroit, and we’re in this together,” Coulter said.


On making regional transit a reality
On the topic of mass transit in southeast Michigan, Coulter said the need has only grown.

“If we talk about a stronger region, we’re the only region in the country that doesn’t have some kind of transit system, and it holds us back in a lot of ways, not just for users of the system, but for companies that want to come here,” Coulter said. “I have a new appreciation for the difficulties of it (since becoming county executive), but I’m not giving up. I’m still optimistic about it.”

Hackel advocated for expanding the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation bus system, saying it has served his county well.

“Twenty-seven distinct municipalities in Macomb County, since the 1990s, have had the opportunity to vote on millages (for SMART), and they have always stepped up and supported every one of those millages,” Hackel said. “Now, whether Wayne or Oakland do that, that’s up to them — that is not for me to decide. But I argue that in Macomb County, we have bought into the SMART system and we know the SMART system can grow to the extent we need to as a region, if we have everybody involved and everybody participating.”

Evans said regional solutions will require close collaboration between the three counties.

“I don’t object to anything Mark just said, but the reality is we have a region where transit is a problem in many places,” Evans said. “Part of the problem is getting into neighborhoods where people are landlocked, getting out to major thoroughfares. Maybe expansion of (SMART) helps to create at least the first generation of transit before folks get to the (next). But it’s not going to happen until the three of us sit down and … come to some decisions about where we give a little, where we take a little. But it needs to happen. I think the pandemic showed significantly, along with health care, the problems you have when you don’t have the mobility to get from one place to another.”

Coulter noted how COVID-19 has been disruptive to the transit industry, with ridership down.

“We have new challenges to build a transit system, but … when I talk about transit, I’m talking about can we get to a BRT (bus rapid transit, where high-capacity buses operate in dedicated center-running bus lanes), or a light rail transit, which is a lot more expensive, or something really transit-oriented above and beyond the mobility SMART offers,” Coulter said. “But first, we have to make sure that SMART and (The Detroit Department of Transportation) are shored up and that they can provide the backbone — it doesn’t do any good to have a line up Woodward if the SMART route down Nine Mile, Eight Mile and M-59 can’t get you there. So, it’s a coordinated, complicated issue, but we’re not going to give up.”

Hackel continued to insist on SMART as the solution.

“There isn’t anything SMART can’t do. If there’s a baseline where everyone has bought into the system … and where there is not one community that has opted out, it would be amazing the amount of money that would be brought into the system, and that would provide solutions for whatever we’re talking about, even if it is light rail and if they’re talking about getting into those neighborhoods,” Hackel said. “SMART does that for Macomb County residents no matter where you’re at — if you’re up in Richmond, if you’re in Romeo, if you’re down in Eastpointe, they are our solution, and if we have questions and concerns, they’re always at the table having those conversations. So, what I say is let’s make it SMART-er — let’s add to one we know has had a tremendous value here in this region, and let’s all get on board by all doing what Macomb County has been doing since the 1990s.”


On using COVID-19 funds to rebuild infrastructure
Coulter said the current COVID-19 funds coming from the federal government aren’t enough.

“The state of Michigan is going to get somewhere close to $8 billion from the infrastructure package … but the reality is that (the bulk of it) goes to MDOT and state roads (rather than counties),” Coulter said.  “In Oakland County, we’ve done the math, and we’re going to get about $3 million a year for the next four or five years. Just to put that in perspective, we could redo half a mile of a five-lane road. So that’s not going to significantly impact the local roads and county roads we have.

“I think one thing we certainly agree on is the funding formula for roads in Michigan needs to get fixed so that more funds come down to where most people live,” he added.

Evans agreed.

“Sounds like a big-money number, but it’s not enough. It’s a major problem. We’ve all taken steps to analyze our road system and determine what kind of maintenance program should we be on — how we get away from waiting until the road completely crumbles to redo it instead of being able to surface other ones — but the money is just not there to do it the way it needs to be done,” he said. “And I don’t see an end game. Part of the problem is the timing with how the money comes from the state and what it should go towards, which would help us plan what we need to do.”

Hackel emphasized that they’re capable of fixing infrastructure, provided they have the money.

“We’ve all heard the governor talk about ‘fix the damn roads,’ but from a perspective of whether you’re MDOT, a county road department or a local DPW, there isn’t a damn road or a damn bridge that we can’t fix — it’s about fixing the funding so we can fix those damn roads and those damn bridges,” Hackel said. “So, I offer that to the Legislature, and I say that for this reason: It’s got to be sustainable funding — it can’t be these one-time shots in the arm.”

On the region’s electric future

The executives were asked how their counties are preparing for a future where more vehicles are electric.

“In Macomb County, we’ve been working with our suppliers in the automotive industry to figure out how to be more competitive in that area, but, unfortunately, we see a lot of stuff going out of state,” Hackel said. “There needs to be more of a concerted effort on behalf of the state and (the Michigan Economic Development Corporation) to figure out how we lock that here in Michigan.”

Evans said that Wayne County has been working with local suppliers to build out the electric vehicle industry.

“But I think the greatest opportunity for us is airport expansion between Detroit Metro Airport and Willow Run,” Evans said. “A lot of developable land is out there. There are people waiting to sign leases for it if we can get some of the infrastructure worked on, and I think a lot of that is going to be supported with the (electric vehicle) industry.”

Coulter mentioned how General Motors’ historic investment in electric vehicles includes its Lake Orion plant in Oakland County.

“So that’s good news for our region,” Coulter said. “But the challenge … is very real, which is that electric vehicles have a lot less parts, so this is going to be very disruptive with our supplier industry and in companies — you know, the tier ones and twos. So, we’re really leaning in … on how to help our smaller to mid-sized manufacturers compete in a world that’s going to be upside-down from what they know. It’s a challenge, but also a huge opportunity.”


On the talent gap and workforce divide
They next talked about how many baby boomers are aging out of the workforce, adding to the talent gap in the region, and what the counties might do to improve this.

“The connectivity is never as good as it ought to be between the schools, colleges and skilled trades programs,” Evans said. “People are graduating, and then the job is no longer there because (the training programs) are behind the curve in terms of what they’re training, and that’s an issue.”

Coulter spoke about attraction and retention of talent.

“Number one, we’ve got to make this region more attractive to attract people here, and just as important is keeping our graduates here, since they’re going away and we’re not growing as a region quickly enough. That’s where transit and … quality of life comes in,” Coulter said. “But then the second thing … is we’ve got to get our residents more skills and training — a high school degree doesn’t cut it anymore. The state has a goal of 60% of our adults having something beyond (a high school degree); in Oakland County, we call it ‘Oakland 80,’ because we’re trying to get it over 80%. Whatever number you select, we have to be intentional and invest in getting people the skills they’re going to need for the kinds of jobs we’re trying to attract to this region.”

Hackel said it’s a multifaceted issue.

“In Macomb County, we’ve got 400,000 people in the workforce, yet there are 35,000 jobs in Macomb County alone still available for people to apply for. … You’re seeing an aging workforce — that’s going to be a problem,” Hackel said. “Fortunately, we’ve got people (like community colleges) working alongside our school districts in Macomb County, as well as our Planning Department and … (other) partners at the table to figure out how to resolve this issue.” 


On expanding broadband access
The three executives were in agreement that it’s important to increase access to high-speed internet in their counties.

“Broadband is critical — yet another issue we saw during COVID to show how important it is for everybody — and it’s ripe for opportunity for regional collaboration,” Coulter said. “We’re beginning to do this together … to figure out what a plan is we can all invest in to expand access to broadband. Our board wants to do that, and I’m all for that.”

Evans and Hackel concurred.


On rancor in politics
The three were asked for their thoughts on the political climate, and how to reduce the vitriol.

“I don’t know if it’s changed, but it’s become more intense, and it’s the primaries — I think the primary elections have become much more volatile than they were in the past,” Hackel said. “If you’re not adhering to one side or the other … you’re much more challenged (to win). So, it’s harder to find those moderate candidates coming through, where (as an example) you might have conservative values but you can still understand the Democratic side. … It’s almost as though many of these candidates, rather than dealing with the people, they’re dealing with the politics and the party.”

Evans said part of the problem is the attitude that working together is a weakness.

“Polarization is so problematic because people now see it as ‘I’ve got to win’ … and the whole concept of coming across the aisle to make a concession to get something done seems to be a lost art,” Evans said. “As a Democrat, if I have something I need to get done, and the Legislature is Republican, I have to … find ways to make less than I optimally would’ve liked to have, to get a piece of legislation done that will be beneficial to people. Now even with voters, it’s like a guy gets … lauded for taking a stand for something that would never fly, but taking a stand doesn’t help you (accomplish anything).”

Coulter said more leaders need to refrain from “bomb throwing” — incendiary language that makes it difficult for two sides to compromise. Hackel added that the mainstream media also makes matters worse by highlighting what divides people rather than what unites them.


On mental health and substance abuse
The topic of the opioid addiction crisis came up, and the executives were asked about their efforts to support mental health and combat substance abuse.

“One of the silver linings about COVID is it reduced the stigma around (mental health) — people are willing to stand up and say, ‘I’m having these issues and I need help.’ The flip side is our providers are flooded and they don’t have the capacity, so we’ve given millions of dollars to our nonprofit providers, and our schools — mental health in schools is a huge issue,” Coulter said.

“We are also presenting to the board, within the next month … (a plan) to open the first emergency room for mental and behavioral issues,” he said. “We will start in Pontiac, but the idea is to have several around the county. We need to treat mental health like we do physical health … so we’re going to kickstart it in Oakland County, if we can.”

Hackel spoke about pandemic relief funds and noted how Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act money was quickly spent on items like personal protection equipment and COVID-19 testing kits, as well as getting relief funds to struggling businesses, including $70 million for businesses in Macomb County.

“But that is what I call ‘transactional’ — that money went so quick,” Hackel said. “When you look at it in the end, you’re like, what did we really get for that? $152 million (for Macomb County) went just like that.”

He said that he’s encouraged, however, by additional funds coming to every county in Michigan by way of the American Rescue Plan, which could help support mental health.

Evans said that supporting people, in general, improves their well-being.

“Through COVID, everything turns out to be mental health funding — people are going nuts because their businesses are folding, they’re having difficulties for a number of things. So, the support we put in the community, even if it’s not directly mental health dollars, it’s still dealing with those issues,” Evans said. “It’s critically important.”