22% of City Workers Live in Suburbs
Nearly 1,000 workers have left city since state ended residency rule.
Milwaukee is steadily losing employees who earn their paycheck from the city but have chosen to live and pay their property taxes elsewhere. The outflow has been steady since a state law ending the city’s residency requirement for employees went into effect in July 2013.
Anywhere from 7 to 44 city workers per month have moved to the suburbs, and the total at the end of November stood at 993 employees who’ve left the city and 449 new hires who live elsewhere and have chosen not to move into Milwaukee. That totals 1,442 non-resident employees or about 22 percent of the 6,561 workers on the city payroll, according to data from the city Department of Employee Relations.
The trend, says Mayor Tom Barrett, “has been bad. And we expected it.”
The city residency requirement had been in force for 75 years, since 1938, and 17 governors saw no need to override the ordinance until Gov. Scott Walker took office. City officials estimated that Milwaukee would lose 50 percent of its employees if the residency requirement was ended, as Urban Milwaukee reported in 2013, when Walker proposed the state law. Statistics at the time showed Minneapolis lost 70 percent of its employees, Baltimore 65 percent and Detroit 45 percent of its city employees to the suburbs after a residency requirement was ended.
Will the exodus continue until Milwaukee loses half or more of its city workers? “I hope it doesn’t,” Barrett says. “I don’t want to see our middle-class employees leaving the city. I want to to have a strong middle class in Milwaukee.”
The biggest exodus has come for the city’s safety employees: 35 percent of fire fighters and 31 percent of police officers now live outside Milwaukee, compared to 12 percent of general city workers.
“We always anticipated it would be higher for police and fire fighters because they’re better paid,” Barrett noted.
This exodus has largely ended a word-of-mouth real estate marketplace, whereby older, retiring fire fighters and police sold their homes to younger fire and police employees, Barrett noted.
And it has been felt the most on the city’s far south side, in Ald. Terry Witkowski’s district, where the 53221 zip code has lost the most city employees, and the southwest side, in Ald. Mark Borkowski’s district, where the 53219 zip code has lost the second-most employees. Ranking third in employees who moved to the suburbs is the 53207 zip code in the Bay View area, where the real estate market seems to be booming.
Ald. Tony Zielinski, who represents the area, says he doesn’t have any data on the exodus of city employees on the real estate market but adds, “Clearly, eliminating the residency requirement is something that is not good for the city.” Zielinski says he has always opposed the state law ending the requirement. (Witkowski and Borkowski did not respond to requests for comments.)
Barrett particularly laments the exodus of police. “I don’t think its good to have the police be an occupying force. I think its important that fire and police be part of the community. When you’re part of the community you treat it as more than just a job.”
The exodus of police has come at a time when relations between the community and the police department have been damaged by killings at the hands of police (Sylville Smith and Dontre Hamilton), illegal anal cavity searches by cops and disagreements over the federal DOJ report on police practices.
You need mutual respect between the community and police to address such issues, Barrett stressed. “It’s a two-way street. And I think there’s more respect when you’re part of the community.”
Lobbying of Walker and the Legislature to end the city residency requirement was led by former fire fighters union president Dave Seager, who moved to the Town of Jackson in Washington County once the residency rule was lifted. Seager’s move and his side lobbying caused controversy that may have led to his removal as fire fighters president. The new president, Mike Bongiorno, lives in the city.
Besides the police and fire department, one other city department has seen the exodus of many employees: 120 Department of Public Works workers have moved to the suburbs.
The gradually increasing percentage of city employees living in the suburbs is also due to new hires living elsewhere who chose not to move to Milwaukee. And that trend is affecting general city employees just as much as fire and police, the data shows. “One of the challenges is getting new employees to move into the city,” Barrett says.
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