Patti Wenzel

Is residency a governmental rule or human right?

By - Mar 23rd, 2011 04:00 am
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Should  Milwaukee cops and firefighters be required to live within the city, or should they have the choice to move anywhere within the five-county metropolitan region?

Senator Leah Vukmir (R-Wauwatosa)  authored companion Senate Bill 30 to eliminate residency requirements for police and fire personnel in Class One cities across the state. Milwaukee is the only city with that designation, but Madison has the population level to petition to become a Class One city if so desired.

The bill would add language to State Statute 62.53, allowing Milwaukee police and firefighters to live anywhere within Milwaukee, Racine, Waukesha, Washington and Ozaukee counties. As of today, it would affect 2,858 city officers and firefighters.

But Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, Fire Chief Mark Rohlfing and Police Chief Edward Flynn want the residency requirement (in place since 1938) to remain, claiming a change in the statute would lead to a middle class flight to the suburbs, a reduction in property values and a loss of ownership in the departments tasked with protecting city residents and property.

“When employees say to me ‘I have to live in the city’ I tell them no, you get to live in the city,” Barrett told the Senate Committee on Labor, Public Safety, and Urban Affairs. He added that this is the city that gives them a salary, a pension and benefits.

Barrett said the departments are not having a problem finding candidates to be officers, with over 3,500 applicants for the MPD and 5,700 for the MFD. Plus, the turnover rate for the police department has been relatively low, with 12 officers voluntarily leaving in 2010, and only 2 firefighters leaving in the same period.

“Do we have a problem filling vacancies? A resounding ‘no,'” he said.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett testifies against a measure to allow the city police and firefighters to live outside the municipal boundaries.

Barrett added that eliminating residency would change the nature of the city, similar to what happened in Detroit when the Michigan legislature eliminated the requirements on residency in 1999.

“53 percent of the officers left that city. In Minneapolis, 70 percent of the officers left the city when residency was lifted,” Barrett said.

He went on to describe the importance of keeping police and firefighters in the city, as homeowners. He said 91 percent of these employees live in owner-occupied homes, while overall 71 percent of city residents own their homes. He cited a statistic that police and firefighter homes have an average value of $166,000, while the average home value across the city is only $123,000.

“These are the middle class, and if 53 percent of them move out of the city it will drive down values.”

Barrett added that if people were unhappy with the residency requirement they could vote the elected officials who continue the policy out and choose leaders who would give this bargaining issue away. He said the issue has been bargained and gone to arbitration four times over the last 10 years, with the arbitrator always siding with the city, noting that unions have been unwilling to give up enough to make it worth the city’s while to end the practice.

Barrett’s description of fair bargaining of the issue is disputed by Milwaukee Police Supervisors Organization President Michael Edwards. He says city labor negotiators either say no outright or challenge the union to get legislation passed to remove the requirement.

“Give me the freedom to choose where I can live and practice my liberty,” said Milwaukee firefighter Tim Latona. Other officers echoed Latona’s sentiment, asking for the freedom to choose.

Barrett said the bill is a blatant power grab by those outside of Milwaukee to who want to control the city, counter to the idea of local control. He described local control as the ability of municipalities to determine the rules and regulations regarding the operation of their communities. Essentially, it’s an extension of the the idea that all politics are local and the best government is that which is closest to the people.

But Vukmir, Kramer and Sen. Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin) define the concept differently. Instead of local control being a municipality’s oversight of its own rules and regulations, it is actually control over one’s person and their home.

Sen. Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin) discusses her beliefs on residency requirements. Screen shots from Wisconsin Eye.

“The choice of employment shouldn’t limit your choice of home,” Lazich said. “It is none of an employers business where their employees live. In this case, local control of the person outweighs the government’s local control.”

Vukmir said she authored the bill after hearing from many officers and firefighters who live in her district (which contains the far west-central neighborhoods of Milwaukee) that want the ability to move if they choose to do so. She would like to see all residency requirements repealed, using a mileage maximum for determining where such employees reside.

She focused on the idea of changing lifestyles, using her brother, a former MPD officer, as an example.

“Everyone that works in Milwaukee knows of the requirement, but they usually start out in these jobs when they’re young. Then their life circumstances change with marriage, children, et cetera,” Vukmir said. “My brother ended his Milwaukee Police career to take care of my mother in our suburban childhood home, but if he could, he would have remained an officer in Milwaukee if the residency wasn’t in effect.”

She said property values wouldn’t drop, since officers and firefighters wouldn’t leave homes vacant or take low-ball prices just to move. Instead, she contends the low values and unemployment in Milwaukee are the fault of the poor quality of education offered by MPS.

Assembly sponsor of the bill, Bill Kramer (R-Waukesha), said arguments that the legislature was punishing Milwaukee, or that property values would drop without this rule were specious and degrading to the good people and attractions within the city.

“We’re not punishing Milwaukee, we consider this a correction to a fundamental wrong,” Kramer said. “And the idea that officers will flee is offensive and besmirches the integrity of these employees.”

Overall, the prevailing feeling on the committee was the idea that local control of this issue doesn’t trump the individual right to live where one so chooses,  and that the state has a right to step in because the success of Wisconsin rests on the success of Milwaukee.

However, there was one lone voice on the committee throughout the five hour public hearing, that of Sen. Spencer Coggs (D-Milwaukee). He repeatedly asked those seeking the bill’s passage what they think would happen if this bill were passed, often projecting his disagreement with the proposal.

In the end, the committee simply adjourned without taking a vote to forward this to the full Senate.

The Senate Committee on Education will meet today (Wednesday, Mar. 23) to discuss SB 34, which would remove residency requirements for Milwaukee Public School employees. The issues and arguments will likely be the same, but how will this all end?

0 thoughts on “Is residency a governmental rule or human right?”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Interesting arguments from Rep. Vukmir and Rep. Kramer.

    The individual should have a right to live where they want? Well then why continue to restrict them to the five county area or a distance restricted radius from their place of employment. Aren’t they still limiting the area they can live in? They are just moving the line in the sand.

    And the Mayor is besmirching the good name of Milwaukee employees? Really? After what the state legislature has done the past 60 days to demonize and belittle ALL public employees?

    BTW: Can state employees live out of state????

  2. Anonymous says:

    The City looks bad no matter what argument it makes, and all the more so, the harder it’s argued that residency must stay to avoid a mass exodus of people and tax revenue. Whether they are wrong or right, the leadership seems to have no confidence in the city’s ability to sustain itself without residency for these two unions. Virtually no data has been offered to support this pessimistic view, so my sense is their non-confidence is based on ignorance, but if it’s correct, that’s bad too.

  3. Anonymous says:

    There is no compelling justification for the state to bar local governments from setting their own residency requirements; municipal voters can change them. Staking a cynical claim on “individual rights” is truly jaw-dropping in the wake of the Wisconsin GOP’s recent fevered rush to the opposite pole.

    Walker’s chief objective is to drive Milwaukee County into insolvency and replace its elected government with an appointed corporate manager, as Michigan’s governor has already been empowered to do by his lap-dog legislature.

  4. Anonymous says:

    This is such a violation of proper government, Jefferson is turning in his grave; A blatant power grab over Milwaukee, just like Barrett said. The white republicans want the money that Milwaukee generates, but they want those being paid by the city paying property taxes in the communities they represent. It’s most likely racially motivated on some level as well, allow the middle class workers to flee the scary black neighborhoods of Milwaukee for their “freedom.” It’s especially a bad idea for police as they will not feel any tie to the community, most likely increasing racial profiling as well as police brutality and intolerance.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Why should we pay people to live fairly well out in Germantown or Hartford? Go become firefighters or cops in Germantown or Hartford. Yes the city needs the tax revenue. We’re good enough to employ you but we’re good enough to have as neighbors? It’s a symbiotic relationship and besides, why would you care what happens to a community you don’t live in? All this would do is effectively legalize another round of white flight. If you want the milk, buy the cow.

  6. Anonymous says:

    “Everyone should have the right to live wherever they want,” said the lily-white representatives of lily-white suburbs that have aggressively barred lower-income and minorities from moving in.

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