Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter shared his vision for the county’s future while sharing the challenges and triumphs experienced over the past year in his annual address held on Wednesday, May 19. His prerecorded remarks were delivered from StageCrafters at the Baldwin Theater in Royal Oak without an audience per the safety precautions brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. Resilience was the overarching theme.
Stepping up to the fight
Coulter began by describing the dire situation created by the deadly pandemic then highlighted the many ways Oakland County residents stepped up and mobilized to face the unprecedented circumstances. From donations of personal protective equipment to neighbors and helping them with groceries, Coulter also praised city and county clerks who helped keep voters safe and elections secure.
“This fighting spirit, however, is not a surprise to me,” Coulter said. “The Oakland I’ve come to know is full of people up to the task.”
Next, Coulter recognized Oakland County’s employees, who went above and beyond, first with COVID testing sites and later with vaccinations: everyone pitched in. He named the Nurse on Call phone banks, which increased capacity fivefold and since March 2020 handled more than 140,000 calls.
It’s not solely the Health Division, Coulter said. Every department played a key role in dealing with the pandemic.
“Our IT department has helped keep the county running safe, taking on the herculean job of making sure our 4,000 employees could work from home,” Coulter said. He added that the department also put the technology in place to keep residents well informed about what was happening with the pandemic.
Other departments that went the extra mile include the Workforce Development office, which volunteered to assist the state Unemployment Insurance Agency and the six Oakland County Michigan Works! offices that took on the additional role of becoming a call center to, often-frustrated, residents.
“These are the people who work for Oakland County: dedicated, passionate and creative in finding ways to provide seamless services to our residents even as they also faced their own personal challenges of diminishing child care, helping their kids with remote learning, and tending to sick and dying family members,” Coulter said.
Coulter highlighted some of the many businesses in the county that stood out in the ways they helped the community throughout the pandemic.
He named the executive vice president of PolyFlex, a Farmington company that transitioned from making packaging materials for auto parts to designing and manufacturing the face shield, and Motor City Gas, a Royal Oak distillery that shifted their whiskey-making business to producing hand sanitizer for three months last year.
Not only did Oakland’s businesses lean in to assist the community but they received help, too.
“When we received $219 million from the federal CARES Act last year, we knew that our businesses were struggling, so we awarded $145 million in grants to our small businesses, our residents, our communities and nonprofits to help them survive the pandemic,” Coulter said. “Nearly 15,000 small businesses and 22 chambers of commerce, 57 cities villages and townships, 278 nonprofits, 31 veterans’ service organizations and 28 school districts received grants.”
Coulter reported that 15,000 businesses were provided with ReOpen Toolkits, filled with the items they needed to help them reopen safely.
Thousands of meals went to needy families, the homeless and frontline workers. Not only that, the county provided free grocery delivery service to 5,000 seniors, grants for basic expenses for 6,000 residents and $1 million in rent and mortgage assistance to 250 households.
“For Alan Semonian, the executive director of StageCrafters here at the Baldwin Theater, the loss of the season at the theater was heartbreaking,” Coulter said. “But the grant that he got from the county delivered a silver lining. The $40,000 in funding allowed him to pay the substantial monthly expenses at the theater for the past year.”
Ongoing county goals
Coulter noted the county is in the final stages of getting residents vaccinated. Hundreds of clinics, ranging from large-scale sites to drive-through options to smaller, targeted ones helped get shots in arms.
“We’ve gotten this far in fighting this pandemic and failure is not an option if we want to beat it,” Coulter said. “So if you haven’t gotten your vaccine yet, there are lots of options for you. And one by one, we can return to that part of our lives that have been put on hold.”
The future of Oakland County was part of Coulter’s address, too, beginning with the Health360 plan. With locations in Pontiac and Southfield, centers will provide health care and referral services to the most vulnerable, under-insured and uninsured populations in the county.
To move environmental goals forward, a Chief Sustainability Officer will be hired to advance the county’s green agenda.
“I’m also proud of our efforts to address the historic inequities faced by our minority populations and people of color,” Coulter said. “Last year, I hired Robin Carter-Cooper, the county’s first chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer to help us cultivate a welcoming and diverse environment for our county workforce.”
A 30-member Equity Council was created in order to lead internal efforts to help create a workplace that promotes cultural sensitivity and understanding among all county employees.
In terms of goals on the education front, Oakland80 is moving forward in its mission to get 80 percent of the county’s residents a college education or certificate degree by 2030. The programs will launch this summer. And programs like Michigan Reconnect and the Futures for Frontliners scholarship program will further the goal of providing residents with a path toward greater success and good-paying jobs.
Just last month, the Clean Slate initiative, a program that allows returning citizens to take advantage of the state’s new expungement laws, got off the ground. In addition, Coulter plans to establish a public defenders’ office in Oakland County within the next two years in order to provide defendants with dedicated attorneys.
“In light of the horrific murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer last year that spurred protests across the nation, including dozens of peaceful marches in Oakland County, we began important and necessary conversations on these injustices and we’re committed to pursuing actions that will make our criminal justice system more equitable, efficient and fair,” Coulter said.
With $244 million in federal funds from the American Rescue Plan, Coulter said the county will look for strategic investments in key areas. Some of those areas, like the lack of affordable child care, were brought into focus during the pandemic. Coulter also noted that 2.4 million women have left the workforce. That could have a lasting and negative impact on the economy.
“The pandemic also forced so many people into crippling and lonely isolation, straining our ability to keep up with the demand for mental health services, so we need to be able to offer a helping hand to our residents who are struggling in so many different ways,” Coulter said.
He left off with a message of hope.
“But the good news is that we have demonstrated that when we put our minds to it, we have the ability, the resilience, the where-with-all to tackle big, difficult challenges that confront us,” he said. “When our generation was called upon to address this unprecedented global health and economic crisis, let history remember that we answered the call.”