More and more city governments around the country are deciding that those who work for the city should also make their homes there. Police and firemen in several cities, from Chicago to Pittsburgh, have long been subject to such residency requirements on grounds that living nearby is an asset in an emergency and can curb absenteeism.
Now, for fresh financial reasons, voters are stepping up pressure on city governments to extend the requirement to all municipal employees, including teachers. The new rationale is to keep city employment low, expand the tax base , and stimulate the local economy.
The most recent official count -- taken a full two years ago by the International Personnel Management Association -- shows that at least 145 municipalities require employees to live within city limits. Many have come aboard just since a 1976 Supreme Court decision, involving a Philadelphia firefighter who moved to New Jersey and lost his job, held that the constitutional right to travel did not necessarily include the right to commute.
wo governmental units have imposed residency requirements just since January. The district of Columbia requires that all new employees be district residents, while anyone hired for a Suffolk County, N.Y., job who lives outside the county must have the specific approval of the county legislature. In another variation , Chicago, which is stepping up enforcement of old fire and police residency requirements, is currently weighing whether to include teachers in the rule.
This surge in new laws and increased enforcement of old ones, however, is not without opposition. Some employees, particularly incensed if new laws apply retroactively to them and not just to the newly hired, argue that the move infringes on their right to a private life. They say too that often their housing money nets more quality in the suburbs than in the city.
Some of these, whom cities have sought to dismiss as "out of towners," have sucessfully challenged local residency laws in court. Accordingly, many cities have found themselves unexpectedly involved in expensive detective work as they try to prove by surveillance, driver's licenses, and other documents that the employee effectively lives in the suburbs, although he may rent a city apartment.
In Detroit, for instance, where there has been a resident law covering city workers for more than 50 years, police and firemen have increasingly challenged the ruling just in the last 10 years.
"It's been an uphill battle for us -- the state courts have not been sympathetic," notes Detroit personnel director Denise Lewis.
Some personnel directors argue that sporadic enforcement is responsible for much of the opposition.
"Most city employees here know we mean business," says Milwaukee personnel director Robert Garnier. "Our residency law has been administered in an evenhanded, steady way; we haven't let it get away from us. I think the problem has come in cities where too many unjustified exceptions have been made and where the law hasn't been steadily enforced."
Increasingly, the residency issue is becoming a ripe area for collective bargaining. There unions press not so much for removal of the employment condition as for more precisely defined residency laws and more exceptions for hardship and other such reasons.
In a few cases, local domicile laws have been struck down by overriding state laws. Currently the Pennsylvania Legislature is considering a bill backed by teacher unions that would make it illegal for a city school district to require teachers to live within city limits. Philadelphia has such a law, and the ramifications of any overthrow could reach well beyond teachers, concedes city personnel director Lewis Taylor.
Although most union opposition is strictly local, national public employee organizations generally say the fewer restrictions, the better.
"We think the best approach is no residency law and no talk about it," says Ray Perry, assistant to the president of the International Association of Firefighters. "If you just leave the situation alone, you'll find as many employees tend to live in the city as anywhere else."
One of the strongest arguments against the residency concept is that it goes against the merit standard of finding the best man for the job by restricting geographical choice.
"It's like a union closed-shop requirement," says one personnel professional.
Many of the laws make exceptions for workers whose skills are in short supply. But most city personnel directors say that for the most part the labor market of city dwellers for available openings is ample.
They also say the reasons why residency makes sense go well beyond the financial advantages to a greater commitments to community improvement.
"Our rationale is that if you live in the community you serve, you identify with it and have a better feeling for its problems," says Kansas City personnel director Tom Lowensohn.