Wisconsin Reignites the Residency Debate

Should public employees be required to live in the jurisdictions they serve? Gov. Scott Walker doesn't think so.

Residency rules that require a public employee to live within the jurisdiction they serve have come and gone. In the late 1800s, the political machine in a number of American cities used such requirements to give jobs to their friends and supporters. When the progressive movement swept the country in the early 20th century, many jurisdictions did away with the requirements, arguing that the best person for the job should be hired regardless of where they live. In the 1960s and 1970s, residency requirements made a comeback as many municipalities, mostly financially struggling cities, were looking to boost their economy and provide opportunities to minority residents. By the mid-1990s, they fell out of favor again as the middle-class increasingly moved to the suburbs and cities struggled to recruit good employees.

Today, residency requirements are being revisited. Cleveland just adopted a new residency rule that local leaders say abides by the state's ban on them, while Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker proposed his own ban on residency rules last month.

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Opponents of residency requirements, which are most public worker unions, argue that employees should be free to live wherever they can best provide for themselves and their families. In larger cities like Boston, critics claim it can be difficult for public workers to find affordable housing in the city limits. City officials, some of the strongest supporters, say such laws ensure that public safety officers can more quickly respond to emergencies. Some police and fire unions, however, argue that their employees could be closer to some parts of the city if they live in the suburbs.

There’s also an economic side of the debate. Supporters say that residency requirements aid the local economy since people are more likely to spend money in the jurisdiction where they live. There’s been some question, though, as to whether people who live on the outer edges of cities end up at big-box stores in the suburbs anyway. And that brings up the issue of where the tax money goes. When New Jersey state Sen. Donald Norcross proposed a residency requirement for the state’s workers in 2010, he said it was “blatantly unfair for our public employees to collect their salaries and benefits from the taxpayers of New Jersey while paying taxes to another state.” His bill passed the legislature and, with support from Gov. Chris Christie, went into effect in 2011.

The tax question is perhaps one of the biggest points of contention in the residency debate. In 1999, the Michigan legislature voted to ban municipal residency requirements, leaving cities like Detroit allowed to only require employees to live within 20 miles of its border. Today, more than 50 percent of the city’s police officers live outside the city, according to the Detroit Police Department. But how much of that was driven by the lifting of the requirement and how much of it was caused by other factors is difficult to determine. There is some evidence that public workers’ relocation accelerated Detroit’s significant loss of its tax base, but it wasn’t the only reason behind it.

In 2009, when the Ohio Supreme Court upheld the state’s ban on residency requirements, Cleveland feared a similar loss. But Maureen Harper, a spokeswoman for Mayor Frank Jackson, says there’s no way to quantify whether there was an exodus of city workers directly related to the ban, but she speculates there wasn’t.

“I think that for the most part, city employees who were obligated to live in the city found it valuable to live and work in the same place, to live in the community in which they served,” Harper says. Also working in Cleveland’s favor was the housing crisis that drove median home values in the city down to a mere $82,000 in 2009, making it difficult for any employee seeking to sell their house.

Just last week, though, the Cleveland City Council passed a new residency law that they believe would survive any legal challenges to the state’s Supreme Court ruling in 2009, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The new rule requires future municipal employees to live not necessarily in the city they serve but at least the state. Public safety workers, however, must live in one of seven specified counties.

Beyond the tax-base argument, supporters of residency rules also tout the importance of public workers being engrained in the communities they serve.

“They’re the Little League coaches, the hockey coaches, the volunteers at the place of worship,” Rahm Emanuel told the Chicago Sun-Times before becoming mayor. “They are anchors -- not just in their block, but in their community. That’s an investment I’m not ready to turn my back on.”

This argument is being repeated in Milwaukee, where city leaders are fighting Gov. Walker’s proposal for several reasons -- one of which is that they view residency requirements as a local issue and not one to be decided by the state.

“I think living in the city clearly can allow for an appreciation for not only the city itself but for the services you’re delivering,” says Milwaukee Common Council President Willie Hines, Jr. “There’s a greater sense of pride in delivering those services because you’re providing them to yourself and your family as well.”

But while that may be true, James Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police says, “if a policeman walks a beat in the south end of the city and lives in the far opposite end of the city, that won’t help him a bit in learning a neighborhood.”

Of course, it can be argued that today’s cities -- thanks to urban sprawl and growing regionalism -- extend far beyond their borders. And beyond these borders, opponents claim, lies a wealth of highly qualified, highly skilled employees that a city with a residency requirement doesn’t have access to. Because of residency requirements, they say, cities are being forced to ignore the person who might be best for the job. Alderman Hines, however, says Milwaukee’s residency rule hasn’t impeded the city’s ability to hire good employees.

“If we didn’t think our current restriction would yield the best and brightest, then we would have to reevaluate,” he says.

The “best and brightest” argument is most often raised in the case of struggling school districts, such as Chicago. But as David Morris, the director of the Public Good Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, puts it: “If you cannot find competent people in a city of two million, there are a lot of things wrong with your city.”

Heather Kerrigan is the author of GOVERNING's Public Workforce newsletter. Prior to joining GOVERNING in 2006, she worked in the Office of Congressman Ron Kind of Wisconsin.