PUBLIC OFFICIALS of the YEAR

Setting the Right Course 2013 HONOREE

L. Brooks Patterson, County Executive, Oakland County, Mich.

Much attention has been given this year to the economic struggles of Detroit. But in Oakland County just to the north, it’s a far different picture. One key reason? Oakland County Executive Brooks Patterson.

After the 2000-2001 recession, much of Michigan struggled to recover and lagged behind the rest of the nation’s economy. But the aftermath of the 2008 recession marked a turning point in southeast Michigan: Oakland County began to thrive while Detroit continued to decline. Oakland’s resilience is due in large part to an idea Patterson first expressed more than 16 years ago. In his 1997 state of the county address, he outlined his vision for diversifying the economy by making the region a top draw for tech companies. The cultivation of Automation Alley is a big reason why Michigan began landing on top tech lists in the past five years, and why the state led the nation in tech job growth between 2009 and 2010.

As a membership-driven business association, Automation Alley connects the business community with the qualified workers it needs. It also turned out to be “a huge support network during one of the worst recessions we can all remember,” Patterson says. For example, the association worked with a local tech college to create a program for retraining laid-off auto engineers; that program alone helped 90 people find new jobs during the downturn.

The focus on tech growth has paid dividends for Oakland County. In 2011 and 2012, Oakland gained 48,000 jobs, its best back-to-back years in nearly two decades. More than half of those new jobs were in high-wage industries. It’s a recovery that University of Michigan economist George Fulton characterizes as “red hot.” Fulton predicts that Oakland will add another 41,000 jobs through 2015.

But job growth is just part of the picture. In 2006, Patterson pushed to make Oakland the only county in the nation to implement a rolling three-year budget plan. That turned out to be another factor that helped the county weather the impending downturn. (The timing was fortuitous, Patterson says, “I’d rather be lucky than good.”) Between 2007 and 2012, the county’s property tax collections declined by roughly 40 percent, says Tamara Lowin, director of research at municipal specialist Belle Haven Investments. But, she adds, “prudent and conservative budgeting ensured that when they hit difficult times, [officials] were able to address their issues without devastating the level of services for their citizens.”

Now in his 21st year on the job, Patterson still has an eye for innovation. In this year’s state of the county address, he announced the launch of a new website to match people looking for job-skills training with trade schools in the region. “He accepts the value of change and the importance of it,” says Ken Rogers, executive director of Automation Alley. “I wouldn’t work for a government official other than him.”

By Liz Farmer