Since 1950 the population of Detroit has fallen by more than 60 percent, from 1.8 million to 700,000. Over that same period the population of Oakland County—a square comprising Ferndale, Southfield, Birmingham, and a cluster of other cities and towns—tripled, to 1.2 million. The county today is one of the wealthiest in the country, and 8 Mile Road has the feel of an international border. The relationship between Detroit, the nation’s poorest city, and its northern neighbors often resembles a border dispute, characterized on both sides by anger, resentment, fear, and caricature. Detroit’s July 18 bankruptcy filing is merely the latest chapter in the long dysfunctional marriage between a once-thriving city and its suburbs.
If there’s one person who best embodies this psychodrama, it’s L. Brooks Patterson, the county executive of Oakland and for decades one of Detroit’s harshest critics. Patterson, 74, who was elected to his sixth term last fall, has held the post since 1993.
Patterson oversees 4,000 employees and a budget of $776 million for fiscal 2013. In the 1990s he switched county workers from defined benefit pensions to 401(k)-type plans, and new hires no longer get lifetime retiree health care—instead they receive health savings accounts. Changes like these have saved hundreds of millions of dollars and eliminated the legacy labor costs that plague not only Detroit but city and state governments all over the country. Oakland is part of a select group of U.S. counties that enjoy a Triple-A bond rating.