ST. LOUIS, MO – The Missouri Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that firefighters with seven years on the job can move out of the city, altering a decades-old fire department residency requirement.
In a 6-0 decision written by Judge Laura Denvir Stith, the state’s high court overturned a trial court and determined that the 2010 state law exempting firefighters from the city residency requirement was legal.
“It’s a very, very big deal for us,” said Capt. Ken Mitchell, a fire union official who worked on the legislation. “It’s a great win. We had overwhelming bipartisan support in the House and Senate.”
The ruling further complicates the already troubled relationship between Mayor Francis Slay and firefighters, who have recently fought over such issues as sick leave, after-hours pay and pension benefits.
Slay’s chief of staff, Jeff Rainford, called the residency exception an insult to city taxpayers.
“The people of St. Louis should decide their own affairs, not the politicians of Jefferson City,” Rainford said.
Slay fought against the state law in principle, Rainford said, not because he stood resolutely against firefighters moving out of the city.
Slay even offered to support a charter amendment accomplishing the same thing, Rainford said, but taken to city voters instead of the Legislature.
“It’s not a huge defeat, but it is aggravating for the citizens of St. Louis,” he said. “You’re basically insulting people, telling them you don’t want to live in their neighborhood.”
St. Louis’ charter currently requires most municipal employees to live within city boundaries.
In 2007, however, firefighters began lobbying the state Legislature to make an exception for them. The city school district was on track to lose its accreditation, and firefighters argued that they shouldn’t be required to send their children to failing schools.
In 2010, the Legislature passed the law exempting firefighters who had been with the department for at least seven years from residency requirements, but only if they resided in a school district that was unaccredited or provisionally accredited. A similar law covers police officers.
St. Louis sued, arguing that the law stole city authority. The circuit court agreed, finding that “home rule” provisions in the Missouri Constitution provide charter cities with “freedom from state legislative control over municipal employment decisions.”
Moreover, the court said, the new law violated state and federal equal protection clauses.
The circuit court did, however, side with the state (and firefighters) in rejecting the city’s argument that the statute violates the Missouri Constitution’s prohibition against special laws.
Both the city and the state appealed.
On Tuesday, the state Supreme Court ruled against the city on all three arguments. The high court said the “home rule” measures keep the Legislature from regulating city employee “powers, duties or compensation,” but not from passing residency laws.
Moreover, the ruling said, the new law doesn’t violate equal protection principles — the legislators could conclude rationally that permitting firefighters to live in accredited school districts could improve public education, and encourage firefighters to stay in their jobs.
Finally, the court ruling says, the law is not “special legislation,” which, if unique to one city, county, company or person, would be prohibited. Any fire department could adopt a residency requirement and any school district could become unaccredited.
The fire union, the International Association of Fire Fighters’ Local 73, said the ruling would not “impact the excellent services provided by the St. Louis Fire Department.”
Attorneys said the city has 15 days to file a motion asking the Supreme Court to reconsider.
Chuck Hatfield, an attorney who represented the union in the case, said: “I think there are going to be firefighters taking advantage of this right away.”
The law, sponsored by state Sen. Jim Lembke, R-south St. Louis County, requires firefighters to live within an hour’s drive of their workplace. It does not require them to move back into the city should the St. Louis Public Schools become fully accredited.