Wisconsin and the Politics of Coercing Public Employees to Live in Town

Residency requirements for municipal workers make it harder to recruit the best and the brightest, but a statewide ban like Wisconsin's may not be the best way to end them.
by | July 26, 2013
 

Yet another perpetual issue is back in the news with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's signing of a provision in the state budget that outlaws residency requirements for most municipal employees and strictly limits them for police and firefighters. The demise of residency requirements is long overdue, but the state imposing the ban on Wisconsin's municipalities is a less-than-ideal way to achieve it.

At least 114 Wisconsin cities and 30 counties have varying levels of residency requirements, so there has been no shortage of reaction to the new law. Its opponents are headed by Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who warned that half the city's public-safety workers might move out of the city. The city's Common Council agreed, voting 13-2 to continue enforcing the ordinance, which has been in effect since 1938.

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The state law's validity will likely be decided by the courts. Barrett and the other opponents are relying on a 1924 amendment to the state constitution that prohibits interference with city operations, subject only to the constitution and legislative matters "of statewide concern." The case will come down to whether municipal residency requirements are such a matter.

Residency requirements are like Berlin Wall-lite, essentially an admission that cities must coerce people to reside there. Only "working families" prompt more flowery rhetoric from elected officials than the virtues of a growing middle class. But the best way for cities to attract middle-class families -- and make residency requirements a non-issue -- is to deliver good schools and safe streets.

Achieving those goals is obviously easier said than done, but it is equally obvious that one of the keys to doing it is to attract and retain highly qualified public employees. Starting out by eliminating the majority of workers in a metropolitan area who don't live in the city that anchors the area -- often because they don't feel comfortable sending their children to the city's public schools -- is hardly a recipe for recruiting the best and brightest.

Wisconsin's residency battle is not without political intrigue. Mayor Barrett waged two unsuccessful gubernatorial campaigns against Gov. Walker, in 2010 and in the recall election last year that resulted from Walker's successful effort to curtail public employees' collective-bargaining rights. In both races, Milwaukee's police and fire unions, which have long opposed the residency requirement, supported Walker (police and firefighters were exempt from his collective-bargaining provisions). Some see the new law as payback for the unions' support.

This week, Milwaukee's Common Council turned up the heat further on the residency-requirement controversy by voting 14-1 to provide city employees with two pay raises but making employees not living in Milwaukee ineligible for the increases. Police and firefighters were again exempted from the provision.

Municipal officials are understandably upset at a state mandate about what is essentially a local issue. But when it comes to the merits, Walker spokesman Tony Evenson got it right when he wrote, "The way to keep people in a city isn't by building a wall, and residency requirements violate an individual's freedom to live in the city of their choice."

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