WATERLOO — Fire Chief Pat Treloar is asking city leaders to stop forcing firefighters to live within 10 miles of City Hall.
Treloar said the 10-mile residency requirement adopted in 2006 for “critical” municipal employees is hurting recruitment efforts and should be expanded to 60 miles.
“I feel our current residency policy is far too restrictive and is not in line with many other cities that we compete with for talented employees,” Treloar said. “We feel that the policy restricts our talent pool for prospective employees and possibly the retention of those employees.
“I strongly believe Waterloo is an awesome place to live, but — this is a big but — people want options,” he added. “They want control over their options, and they want to decide where to live and not a policy set by their employer.”
Treloar made the request to Waterloo City Council members during a work session Monday, suggesting each department head should evaluate what distance is appropriate for their needs.
While the policy is designed to ensure off-duty critical municipal employees are able to be called back quickly for emergency response, the issue also has political overtones.
Councilwoman Margaret Klein said taxpayers want to see the employees they pay living in the city.
“I just think it’s fair that if you’re going to give people hefty wages — you know competitively in Waterloo firemen make very good wages and their benefits are excellent — I think the citizens just want to see that they’re part of the community,” Klein said.
City employees shouldn’t just “come in and service us like you get a flat tire on the highway and you’ve got to get somebody to come out and put air in the tire,” she added.
Klein compiled statistics during the last budget process showing about 52 percent of of city employees actually live in Waterloo. That data showed 45 firefighters lived in the city while 64 lived elsewhere.
The current 10-mile radius allows employees to live in Cedar Falls, Hudson, Evansdale, Elk Run Heights, Raymond, Gilbertville and part of Dunkerton. Cities just outside the radius include Janesville, Waverly, Denver, Jesup, Dike and La Porte City.
Cities are prevented under Iowa law from requiring civil service employees from living within the city limits. But they can set reasonable distance requirements for police, fire and other critical response employees.
The law does not apply to noncivil service employees, which is why Waterloo can legally require its department heads to reside in the city limits.
Waterloo defines “critical” employees as all sworn police officers and firefighters, engineering and sanitation staff involved in flood control, street department personnel, forestry workers, airport maintenance workers, many sewer maintenance and treatment plant employees, all traffic operations staff, parking maintenance, building maintenance and information technology workers, along with several other positions.
A policy adopted in 1981 required those workers to live within a 30-minute drive of the city. It was revised in 2003 to a 20-mile radius of City Hall. The current policy, with a 10-mile radius, was adopted in September 2006.
Waterloo’s policy is more restrictive than those adopted in most other large cities.
Des Moines and West Des Moines require sworn public safety employees to live within a one-hour drive of city limits. Council Bluffs requires police employees to live within 30 miles of police headquarters and firefighters to live within 60 miles of the fire headquarters.
Cedar Rapids requires sworn police and fire personnel to live within 50 driving miles of the main stations. Iowa City police, fire and other critical employees are required to live within 17 miles of the city limits.
Davenport has an ordinance stating that public safety personnel must live in Scott County or a small area of Muscatine County.
Urbandale requires police employees to live within 25 miles of the city limits but has no policy for firefighters or other employees. Cedar Falls also lacks a residency policy for police or firefighters.
Sioux City is nearly as restrictive as Waterloo, requiring all city employees hired after July 1, 1997, to live in the city or within a 10-mile radius of the city limits. Dubuque requires every noncivil service employee, police officer, firefighter and critical civil service employee to live within 6.5 miles of the corporate limits by the most direct route.
Treloar said the stated reason for the Waterloo policy is to ensure off-duty firefighters can respond quickly during a call-back situation. But he said he’s never been called back during his 22-year career and noted a 30-year battalion chief has only been called back twice.
Mayor Quentin Hart cautioned against becoming complacent just because callbacks are rare.
“It’s kind of like an insurance policy: You may not ever use it, but you darn well want to know that you have it just in case anything happens,” Hart said. “There needs to be a balance to make sure we have folks here that could (respond).”
Council members agreed to form a committee to review other city policies and get input from other department heads on the residency requirements for their critical employees.
Meanwhile, Treloar suggested the city could use a carrot instead of a stick approach, possibly looking at incentives to lure new hires to live in town.
“I would love for all of our members to live within the city, but we do not need them to,” he said.
“We encourage all our members to live within the city and we give them a hard sell at the time we hire them.”