Should city employees be required to live and pay taxes where they work? Some think so.
May 11, 2010
Hartford City Council Minority Leader Luis Cotto, born and raised in the city, would live in Hartford even if he wasn’t required to as a member of the city’s legislative body. He wishes more city employees felt that way.
The most recent numbers, for 2008-2009, show that 29 percent of the city’s 1,485 full-time employees live in the city. The number is even lower for Hartford cops: 65 out of 432 officers — 15 percent — live in Hartford. Police Chief Daryl Roberts lives in East Windsor. At the other end of the spectrum, half of the 182 full-time employees of the Department of Public Works live in the city.
Hartford requires only its non-union department heads and council appointees — the aides to city council members — to live in the city, and that has been only since 2005, when an ordinance was passed by the council. Roberts was exempted because he was hired prior to July 1, 2005.
A new hire for one of these executive-level positions has six months to establish residency in Hartford or lose his or her job. State law prohibits cities from imposing residency requirements on unionized workers, unless it’s part of their negotiated contracts.
Cotto is deeply troubled by the numbers for Hartford, saying it’s “tremendously important” for people who work for a city to live there as well.
“When you go to the grocery store it makes a big difference if you’re shopping and you say, ‘That’s my teacher,’ or you see the police officer,” says Cotto. “It’s called community. It can’t be that [Hartford] is where we keep all the poor people and the working class lives somewhere else.”
But that’s the reality, says Cotto. Hartford carries a stigma of bad schools and worse crime that sends city workers and others fleeing to the suburbs as soon as they have the money to go.
“Latinos go to East Hartford and Manchester, African-Americans go to Windsor and Bloomfield, whites and Caucasians go west,” says Cotto. “Obviously there can and should be exceptions, but at the same time we need to make a requirement [to live in the city] wherever we can. If the city is good enough to work in, it’s good enough to live in.”
Other Hartford City Council members feel the same way. Councilman Ken Kennedy recently voted against confirming Kevin Burnham as the new head of the Department of Public Works because Burnham doesn’t live in Hartford.
But Sarah Barr, communications director for Mayor Eddie Perez, says Burnham is a special case.
“Hartford residency is certainly preferred, but in limited cases, individuals have unique qualifications that must be taken into consideration,” Barr wrote in an e-mail. “In the particular case of Kevin Burnham, his experience with DPW, his credentials (including being an engineer), his obvious commitment to the City, and his strong reputation with both City and community groups made him the best choice for the position.”
Burnham was confirmed. And he was exempt from the 2005 residency requirement anyway, because like Roberts, he was originally hired before the July 1, 2005 deadline.
“Any new person would have to live in the city,” says Councilman Matt Ritter.
David Panagore, for example, the city’s new director of development services and chief operating officer was required to live in Hartford. Panagore’s director of economic development, Mark McGovern, wasn’t offered the director’s job for Development Services because he didn’t live in the city and wasn’t willing to move, according to Kennedy.
“These folks make good money and I would like to see the money turned over in the city, obviously,” says Kennedy. “But it’s also a credibility issue. If you’re economic development director how can you sell a product you’re not willing to use?”
McGovern declined to comment.
The residency issue also crosses party lines on the city council. Majority Leader rJo Winch, a Democrat, is just as upset as Cotto, the minority leader from the Working Families party.
Winch says most people are living here when they apply for a job with the city, but once they get a paycheck or two they move out.
“It’s unfortunate for us that people attribute making money to moving out of the city rather than moving to another location in the city,” says Winch. “They don’t understand how that hurts the city, lowering the number of taxpayers. The employees we pay move out, spending the money they get from the city in the place they live. That hurts us.”
And the worst offenders, says Councilman Matt Ritter, are not the police, but teachers.
“Department heads aren’t the problem, a handful don’t live in the city,” says Ritter. “The real problem is rank-and-file city employees. I think the biggest discrepancy is teachers, 90-percent-plus live outside the city.”
The council has made some attempts to lure teachers and others back into the city with small pay bumps of a few percentage points or bonuses and tax abatements, but Ritter says those measures haven’t had much effect.
“We’re so cash-strapped it may not be enough to entice someone if they have a desire to go elsewhere,” he says.
The question of requiring city workers to live where they work has been a hot topic across the country, with the recent trend being to reverse long-standing policies that required city workers to live within the city limits.
Until recently, all municipal employees in New York City — 80,000 of them in 1986, when the ordinance was passed by the city council — were required to be residents or move into the city within 90 days. The requirement did not apply to the 180,000 employees in the city’s “uniformed services” — cops and firefighters — or to employees working in independent agencies created by the state.
In 2004, the residency requirement survived a challenge in the New York State Court of Appeals, which unanimously sustained the constitutionality of the law.
But a year and a half ago, the requirement was dropped except for the first two years of employment. After that, New York City employees can live in any of the surrounding counties adjacent to the city.
Providence, R.I., had a similar requirement for all city employees, including both cops and teachers, to live in the city. It too has been dropped. In York, Pa., city employees asked the city council last month to repeal the ordinance requiring most of them to live within city limits. The state legislatures in both Minnesota and Michigan passed bills forbidding cities from imposing residency requirements.
In Memphis, voters and the city council have been grappling with the issue for years, tossing it back and forth between referendums, votes on the council and legal opinions that have resulted in some city workers being required to live in the city, others required to live in the city or the county, and still others able to live wherever they choose.
But perhaps the most heated battle over the issue took place last year in Ohio, where the Ohio Supreme Court upheld a 2006 state law banning cities from enforcing residency rules. In a story last June, The Plain Dealer described the decision as one that “could be crippling for Cleveland.”
Cleveland had required its employees to live within city limits since 1981, when it was voted on by city residents in a referendum.
“Every city worker signed a document saying they understood this and agreed to it,” says Cleveland City Councilman Kevin Kelley. “In exchange for receiving a comfortable middle- to upper-middle class salary, plus Cadillac benefits and a retirement head and shoulders above most people in the city, they agreed to live in city limits as part of the bargain.”
Now, says Kelley, in an act of “political cowardice” the Ohio legislature “caved” to pressure from unions, particularly police and firefighters, and overruled Cleveland’s ordinance.
“The [Ohio] Constitution is crystal clear,” says Kelley. “That’s what makes this Supreme Court decision particularly offensive to me.”
But what’s done is done, says Kelley, and the only way to change it would be to change the Ohio Constitution, an unlikely scenario. A survey at the end of last year showed that only 300 of the city’s 8,000 employees had taken advantage of the ruling and moved out of Cleveland, but Kelley thinks that’s because the nation is still in the midst of one of the worst economic crises in decades.
“We don’t know the full effects yet,” he says. “We have to look at what’s going to happen 15 years down the road.”
New Haven Alderman Darnell Goldson is well aware of the daunting hurdles he faces in his planned grassroots campaign to require city workers in New Haven to live in the city. There’s the state law passed in 1989 forbidding it. And there’s the recent trend across the nation of undoing such requirements where they had existed for decades.
New Haven is a little better off than Hartford, with about 33 percent of its workers living in the city. But Goldson says he was “absolutely shocked” when he realized 70 percent of the city’s payroll of $230.4 million “left the city each week.” New Haven has 4,541 workers on the payroll, including board of education and part-time workers.
“Twenty-five percent of our total budget was flowing out of this city, going to employees that do not pay taxes in the city of New Haven,” says Goldson. “It was frustrating to me to see that.”
Jessica Mayorga, spokeswoman for Mayor John DeStefano, points out, however, that this transfer of wealth works both ways.
“While New Haven employs a number of individuals from outside the city, more than half of New Haven residents work in other cities and towns, bringing wealth back to the city,” says Mayorga.
Goldson was even more shocked, he says, to learn that only 13 percent of the city’s police officers and 17 percent of its firefighters live in New Haven. He believes the absence of police living in the city could help explain a string of unsolved murders.
“No wonder they haven’t been able to solve 11 or 12 murders in the past year and a half,” says Goldson. “[Police] have no connection to the community. People don’t trust them. At the end of the day they take off their gun belts and drive back to Madison or Seymour or wherever else they live.”
Mayorga calls Goldson’s statement “unfortunate, uninformed and hopefully misstated.”
“The men and women of our police department come to work every day and put their lives on the line for the safety and well-being of New Haven residents,” she says. “No one asks these officers where they come from when their lives are at risk or when they pay the ultimate price in the line of duty.”
Mayorga also points out New Haven did have a residency requirement before it was “stripped” by the Connecticut General Assembly with a state law.
Goldson figures there are two ways to get that requirement back. Right now, as in Hartford, New Haven requires only department heads to live in the city. One way would be to change the state law prohibiting residency requirements — not really an option, says Goldson, given that the majority of legislators are from the suburbs where most New Haven workers already live and pay taxes.
“It would be a tough sell,” he says.
The other would be to convince DeStefano to take a “tough stand” and negotiate the requirement into the city’s union contracts, eight of which are up for renewal now. State law defers to a negotiated collective agreement, so theoretically that could be done.
It’s an opportune time to propose more revenue for the city from increased property taxes, in Goldson’s view, because of the difficult economy and a budget deficit that has DeStefano trying to lease out the city’s parking to a private concern for $50 million.
So Goldson says he’s taking his fight to the people, right after the budget is passed in June.
If he can get a groundswell of support big enough to convince 15 of his fellow 20 aldermen to join him, he’ll have the majority he needs to demand the mayor push the unions for residency requirements, because the Board of Aldermen has to sign off on all union contracts.
“Once we get that magic number of aldermen along, the mayor won’t have a choice,” says Goldson. “I think this is the right time with the economy the way it is and with the city budget the way it is. We’re in a tough place.”