After 200 Years, City Residency Laws Still Controversial Policies Often Reactivated at Times of Fiscal Crises, Urban Flight

Article excerpt

George Washington firmly believed that public employees ought to live in the city they serve. "Every matter, & thing, that relates to the City ought to be transacted therein and the persons to whose care they are committed (should be) Residents," he wrote in 1796.

Two hundred years later, residency requirements are common and controversial. Many municipalities require rank-and-file workers to live within city limits. If an emergency hits, the reasoning goes, employees can be rounded up quickly.

Such laws can ease local unemployment. And taxpayer dollars paid to public employees who were residents tended to go back into the community.

Mayors say it's not as though the government popped some sort of surprise on employees. Most workers accepted jobs under the condition that they would be residents.

"People have a constitutional right to live anywhere they want. They do not have a constitutional right to public employment," says Paul R. Soglin, mayor of Madison, Wis.

During fiscal crises, mayors in cities with a shrinking population and tax base often reactivate a dormant residency law or create a new one in hopes of slowing middle-class flight to the suburbs.

That was the intent when, in 1976, Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley dusted off an unenforced 1901 residency statute and gave city employees three months to show proof they were moving into the city or lose their jobs.

Some employees challenged his edict in court, but they all lost their cases.

In 1993, Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke issued an executive order calling for anyone who accepted a job with the city to move there within 12 months.

Of the 33,025 full- and part-time city employees, as of March, 23,760 lived in the city. Because the police department is a state agency, its officers are exempt.

This spring, Boston began firing dozens of city employees for flouting a 1976 residency law that had not been enforced for years. Mayor Thomas M. Menino made residency a big issue in his 1993 campaign. Once in office, he gave employees living in the suburbs a year's grace period to move into Boston. Although teachers, police and firefighters have been exempt, new hires for those jobs now also must live in Boston.

In many cities, unions representing these employee groups tend to be the most vocal opponents and work to get their members exempted through contract negotiations.

"We don't think employees should be restricted on off-duty time when they're not being compensated by their employer," argues William Ward, vice president of the Milwaukee Police Association. …


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