Residency Rule Upheld But For How Long?
Appeals court overturns law killing city residency rule. State high court may review decision.
The good news for Milwaukee is that state appeals court struck down the state law which eliminated its residency requirement for government employees. The bad news is that the decision will be appealed to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which, as its recent John Doe decision suggests, tends to back anything the Republicans do.
Milwaukee had a residency requirement for city employees for more than 75 years until the Republican dominated legislature prohibited such requirements as part of the 2013-2015 budget. While the law is effective state-wide, Milwaukee was the only city with a universal requirement for its employees. As the 1st District Court of Appeals’ decision noted, the law’s “sole reason… is the gutting of Milwaukee’s long-standing residency requirement.”
Milwaukee officials, led by Mayor Tom Barrett, had argued that the home rule provision for cities takes precedence in this case because this is really a matter of local concern with no state-wide impact and Presiding Judge Patricia S. Curley, who wrote the decision, agreed, saying the law “does not involve matters of statewide concern” and “does not trump the Milwaukee ordinance.”
Residency laws are not uncommon in other big cities nationally, as I’ve previously written and can be found in Boston, Chicago, New Orleans, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, as a survey by the Milwaukee Legislative Reference Bureau found.
As for those cities who ended the requirement, the survey found, Minneapolis repealed the requirement in 1999 and 70 percent of its employees now live outside the city. Detroit did so in 1999 and 45 percent now live outside the city. Baltimore repealed in 1995 and 65 percent now live outside the city. Huge numbers of government employees also left St. Louis and Washington D.C. after residency rules were relaxed.
In her concurring opinion, Judge Joan F. Kessler noted a consultant’s report that delineated the unique economic havoc the statute would have on Milwaukee, as Crocker Stephenson reported for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The consultant predicted that 60 percent of Milwaukee’s 7,000 employees would become nonresidents and nearly 4,000 households would leave the city, resulting in an estimated retail loss of nearly $55 million and reducing the city’s tax base by $649 million. “There is no evidence in the record that any other municipality would likely be similarly affected,” Kessler wrote.
City officials tell me there has already been a substantial exodus of police and firefighters, who have moved to suburban homes since the residency requirement was overthrown.
Supporters of ending the residency requirement had argued this will enable the city to hire better employees. But city statistics show there are 42 applications for the average job. In recent recruitments, the city received 5,711 applications for the position of fire fighter and 3,569 for the position of police officer.
Police and fire workers often grumble about property taxes in Milwaukee, which are higher than many surrounding suburbs. But the major reason for that is the wages and benefits they are paid, which accounts for 60 percent of the entire city operating budget.
But Mike Crivello, the police union’s president, told the Journal Sentinel his group would “seek review in the Wisconsin Supreme Court” of the Appeals Court decision.