New NACo president to rebuild partnership
This month, Oakland County, Mich., Commissioner Eric Coleman will be named president of the Washington-based National Association of Counties (NACo) during its annual conference. A former educator and businessman, Coleman has served his district since 1996. As a member of the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments and NACo’s Large Urban County Caucus, Coleman has worked to create and maintain alliances among leaders in the Tri-County Region — including Macomb County, Oakland County, Wayne County and Detroit — and plans to extend that practice to the federal level. Coleman also is involved with social issues, such as foster care, and hopes to bring the topic to the attention of the organization and other county leaders. American City & County talked with Coleman about his plans for NACo and the importance of federal-local partnerships.
Q: What unique issues in your county would you like to bring to NACo’s attention this year?
A: My goals for Oakland [are] very much in line with [NACo’s objectives]. Oakland County itself has been a leader in regional cooperation. NACo offers a tremendous opportunity for counties and local governments to benefit jointly by creating strategic alliances to save money and effectively deliver services, and that’s the same thing we’re doing through the Tri-County [Alliance]. We have [these regional leaders] sitting down at the table [and] addressing issues that are common to us and fighting for those issues that best suit our region.
Q: What are some of the major challenges that counties are facing now?
A: Trying to find ways to protect our constituency from the hazards of nature and doing it with [fewer] dollars [is a constant challenge]. Our biggest problem is that we have to deal with unfunded mandates. [Because of laws that place extra requirements on counties without providing additional funds,] we [have to] do more with less [money]. We’d like to see a repeal of the 3-percent withholding tax mandate on counties. Congress approved it not realizing what the IRS was asking us to do. It has mandated that, without any warning, the largest counties are required to collect 3 percent of all payments to vendors. In other words, we become tax collectors for the IRS. It’s costly, it’s burdensome [and] it’s an unfunded mandate without any federal dollars to assist us.
Q: How has your background in education and business prepared you for your involvement in local government?
A: You’re born in politics. Educationally, you’re dealing with parents and a system. That also prepares you in dealing with politics. [In] business, you’re dealing in politics all the time: the laws, the regulations, the IRS. All of that plays a part in politics. Well-meaning public servants think they might be helping you out in a situation and helping out their constituency, [but] they might be doing the contrary. Politics is involved in your daily life.
Q: With the increased focus on climate change and environmentally friendly practices, are there any “green” initiatives that your county is working to implement?
A: We’re looking at infrastructure and buildings [and doing] things more “green.” In other words, using better material for insulation of our various projects, whether it is infrastructure as far as water or electric, looking how [to better] handle wastewater, looking at alternative energy sources, such as in lighting our buildings. [The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments] also has a greening policy. NACo has a greening initiative. We’re all working [on] living and making our environment better.
Q: What are your plans for the upcoming year? Are there any issues specific to urban areas that you would like to address?
A: My initiatives don’t have an urban slant. [They] are issues of concern and well-being [of] our country as a whole. I want to raise the public awareness about children [growing up in] the foster care system. My initiative will raise awareness among county officials, [and] I’m going to identify some county practices that support these young people as they transition into an independent adult living situation. [This will let] county officials take action [on] that [problem]. [Another initiative] is launching the “Campaign Against Sexual Exploitation,” a new effort by NACo and the Large Urban County Caucus as well as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, to fight child exploitation and to encourage communities, through a diverse alliance of stakeholders led by county officials, to show people across the country how they can protect their children.
We’re [also] trying to restore this partnership that we had with Congress and the White House. What is most disturbing to me, and I’m sure with other commissioners around this country is, despite the change in power, Congress continues to propose legislation that negatively effects counties and communities. Too often, Congress has been imposing unfunded mandates on counties, [which take] the financial responsibilities from the federal governments [and place it] onto counties, [and] underfunding critical programs, such as Community Development Block Grants. What we want to do is to return to the days when the nation’s counties and local governments were partners. One way that we’re addressing this is through the 2008 Presidential Election Project, in which our goal is to become partners with the state associations and engage the candidates [on] county issues. We believe strongly that the issues that are important to counties and local governments must be on the national agenda if they are going to be addressed in the foreseeable future.