Some Communities Find Residency Requirements An Obstacle To Hiring

DANVILLE, IL — In an increasingly competitive job market, the city of Danville has had a tough time recruiting civil engineers for positions that pay between $50,000 and $90,000 a year.

The solution, some aldermen believe: eliminate the requirement that professionals must live in Danville if they want to work for the city.

It’s not a rule that’s unique to Danville: Of 72 area towns surveyed by News-Gazette Media, 28 — including both Champaign and Urbana — have on the books some ordinance or official policy that requires some, if not all, municipal employees to reside in or just outside that city or village.

They range from flexible (Georgetown police officers can live as far from the city as 60 miles as long as they don’t cross the Indiana state line) to firm (Fisher full-timers have six months from their hire date to move to the village) and are increasingly becoming a barrier to hiring top candidates in some towns.

“We haven’t hired anyone for a while, but I think every village is going to have to be open on requiring employees to live in town,” said Mike Bayler, mayor of Fisher, a village that has the freedom to grant exemptions to its residency requirements.

“Sometimes,” Bayler said, “the best employee that you interviewed has a good reason for not being able to move, so that is why we have our provision in the ordinance. However, I’m a firm believer that if you’re getting paid by tax dollars, you should live and invest in the community which hired you, unless there are extraordinary circumstances.”

In Danville, officials found that recent engineering candidates who wanted to work for the city didn’t want to move inside its corporate limits within six months of being hired. That’s been Danville’s requirement since 2008 for all newly-hired non-union positions, as well as some clerical and public works union jobs.

Other union positions, including police officers and firefighters, must live within five miles of the city, per collective-bargaining agreements.

Last month, Danville Alderman Dan Duncheon asked a committee of the city council to consider a proposal to eliminate the residency requirement for engineers. The city is outsourcing a lot of engineering work, which is more costly — and, for the larger projects, necessary. But in other cases, he said, the city farms out business because it’s simply too short-staffed to take on the work.

“By and large, at least half (of the projects) could have been done in-house if we would have had staffing available,” Duncheon said, “so I’m hoping the other committee will come up with a real suggestion.”

Duncheon said he’d prefer that all city employees, including police officers and firefighters, live in the city’s corporate limits. But at the same time, he added, Danville needs the best employees it can hire at the rate it can afford.

“I wish we could hire the staff we need, and I wish they were all Danville residents,” he said. “… I don’t have a problem hiring engineers who don’t live here.

“When you are spending someone else’s money, we have an obligation to get the best value we can.”

The issue is one that officials in small towns and big cities around the area and across the country have wrestled with for decades. Nearly 40 years ago, now-retired University of Wisconsin Professor Peter Eisinger researched an “explosive revival” of city residency requirements for public employees, which had faded away in the 1950s and 1960s after playing a role in political patronage practices around the turn of the last century.

Even then, the arguments against such policies were much the same as they are today.

Residency requirements can be barriers in hiring the best candidates for government jobs. Like Danville, other local communities have found that out the hard way recently, including Rantoul in its search for an assistant public works director and Gibson City in filling multiple positions.

According to Eisinger, there was a resurgence in such policies in the 1970s — nearly two-thirds of U.S. cities with populations over 250,000 had adopted new residency requirements by 1980. And they were often a result of those cities trying to combat local unemployment and encourage the spending of city salaries in the local economy, Eisinger found in his survey and study of 85 cities.

Economic reasons drive some cities today to adopt residency rules.

Last year, Rockford began requiring all new hires in non-union positions to live in the city, part of its ongoing efforts to rebuild neighborhoods. And, in 2016, Springfield council members voted to require future municipal employees to live within the city.

Proponents of residency requirements argue that government workers should be vested in the municipality by living there, being involved in the community and sharing the property tax burden.

Said Scott Eisenhauer, who was mayor at the time Danville implemented its 2008 residency requirement: “The idea behind that was simply if you are receiving a paycheck from a municipality, you should support the municipality by living within its limits. Those who live in a community use its services, pay its taxes and fees, support its activities, shop and eat in its restaurants and are more conscientious about what takes place within the city. We felt it was very important for those who serve the residents to be a resident so they share the same experiences.”

Opponents, meanwhile, argue that preferred candidates sometimes have legitimate reasons for not wanting to live in a city — conflicts with a spouse’s job or a child’s schooling or housing issues, to name a few.

Urbana’s written policy mandates only that the chief administrator and department heads live within the city while the assistant police chief, police lieutenants and fire rescue service division chiefs are required to reside within a 15-mile radius of the city limits.

The policy spells out the philosophy behind the rules, but with caveats:

“It is the management philosophy of the City that all members of the City’s management team will have a better appreciation, sensitivity and understanding of the local dynamics involving taxation issues, municipal services and resident concerns as a citizen of the City they serve. However, it is also the philosophy that the City of Urbana encourages employee betterment through the promotional ladder, which is not always achieved when requiring a current employee to relocate once promoted.

“Further,” it goes on to say, “the City of Urbana strives to achieve the broadest base of qualified candidates from which to fill various management positions.”

Early last year, Gibson City council members voted unanimously to amend its residency requirements — which had long required employees live in town — to living no more than 20 miles from city limits.

The change was spurred by the hiring of police Officer Kaleb Kraft and wastewater-treatment plant operator Mark Webster, who both lived outside Gibson City. Webster’s position went unfilled for nearly a year, and City Superintendent Randy Stauffer said moving to Gibson City would have been a deal breaker for Webster.

Several years ago, Fisher lost a qualified candidate when city officials would not bend on their requirement that all full-time employees live within the corporate limits. Police Chief Rob Bross, who lived in Rantoul and was having difficulty selling his house, ended up resigning and taking another job in Atwood.

The policies in place in Fisher, Monticello, Urbana and Westville require that moves to town happen within six months of an employee’s hire date.

But Urbana reserves the right to grant extensions in the event of “extenuating circumstances, such as temporary fluctuation in the housing market, family considerations pertaining to the school year, special educational needs, controlling family obligations, conflicting residency requirements affecting a spouse, medical reasons” and the like.

In Rantoul, the village administrator and all department heads must live in the city, but various employees defined as “essential personnel” can reside anywhere within four miles of the corporate limits, a restriction that the public works director asked be waived in 2017 when he struggled to fill an assistant director position.

The board ultimately granted Greg Hazel’s request, after initially turning it down. That sparked more debate among village trustees.

Rantoul Mayor Chuck Smith said the community had a lack of available talent for the assistant public works director’s position, which requires specialized knowledge and skills.

“The board realized that, so in order to get the talent brought to Rantoul, the board felt it was in the best interest to waive the requirement,” Smith said, adding that it allowed the city to hire its preferred candidate for the position. “And it was the right decision. He’s very qualified and also has leadership qualities.”

But Smith said there’s still value in having residency requirements for employees.

“It has two sides,” Smith said. “One is a complement to the community, because community members feel that if you work here, you should live here and be active in events and organizations. The other side is not every community has the source of talent that would make that (hiring) pool possible, and we have to be able to give and take. It is a matter of negotiations.”

Residency requirements are also a topic of negotiations when it comes to government employees covered by collective-bargaining agreements. That can lead to different policies for different groups of employees.

In Danville, non-union employees hired after Jan. 1, 2008, must live within the city, but police and firefighter contracts allow them to reside anywhere within five miles of the city. And the union contract for Danville Mass Transit employees, which went into effect last summer, includes a policy unlike either of those.

According to the collective-bargaining agreement, the “Residency Alternative Program” allows a mass transit employee to live beyond the five-mile zone, but requires that person to pay the city a “residency contribution,” which is Danville’s property tax rate applied to the equalized assessed value of one’s residence outside the city. (Farm ground or property in excess of two acres is not included in the calculation.)

So far, Danville Mass Transit Director Lisa Beith said, no one has taken advantage of the new policy. As a federally-funded entity that provides transit services outside Danville — including to Georgetown, Tilton and Westville — Beith said the agency has advocated for years that it should be able to hire employees who live in those towns, not just Danville.

“It really hasn’t made a difference in our employment pool, but I can see that happening,” she said. “We always ask (job candidates) if they are willing to relocate, and if they say no, then we have (had) to take them off our radar.”

From The News-Gazette