NEW BEDFORD — If the City Council gets its way, the long standing debate over granting residency waivers to city employees may be drawing to a conclusion.
The council voted 10 to 1 Thursday to pass a residency requirement ordinance that any employee who is not maintaining residence in the city and has not attained 10 years of total employment by the city will have their salary reduced by 10%. Councilor-at-large Debora Coelho was the only dissenting vote.
City employees with active residency waivers will be grandfathered in and employees can still apply for a residency waiver, but the waivers will only last a period of six consecutive months and employees can only receive one waiver and one extension.
Currently, there are 42 active residency waivers, according to the mayor’s office, including an unpaid Board of Health member and four lifeguards, with a total of 1,365 total people on the city’s payroll.
Coelho said residency waivers have been an issue as long as she’s been a city councilor, stating the process seemed to lack equality, with some higher-level workers being granted permission to live outside of the city, while lower-level workers seemed to have a different set of rules.
The long-time councilor, who is not running for re-election, said she began to see it as a bit unconstitutional.
Councilor-at-large Linda Morad has long questioned the residency waiver policy.
At a council meeting in November of last year, she said, “We really have no ability to control what comes before us. So there are other people within the city who work for the city, who’ve lived in the city a long time, who want to move but they can’t come before us for us to make that decision because if the administration says ‘No you can’t have the residency waiver,’ it never comes to this body.”
Morad said on Friday that she’s pleased the ordinance passed and that “it treats everyone equally.”
Coelho said she decided to vote against the ordinance because she is in favor of doing away with the residency requirement for city employees altogether.
“The argument is that you’re going to serve the city better if you’re going to live in the city, there’s really nothing that proves that,” Coelho said, adding that she doesn’t want to put restrictions on people who have the education, qualifications, and talent to serve the city just because of where they live.
Both women doubted Mayor Jon Mitchell would sign the ordinance.
“I expect there to be a veto, I don’t imagine he will let the item pass because it takes control out of the administration’s hands,” Morad said.
The councilors assumed right, the mayor does plan to veto the ordinance, according to Public Information Officer Jonathan Carvalho.
Mitchell said the council’s ordinance waters down the city’s residency requirement and makes it more difficult for the city to recruit qualified applicants for positions that require specialized expertise or significant experience.
“It is especially disappointing that the council completely eliminated the residency requirement after 10 years of service, as if that marks the point at which an employee somehow has ‘earned’ the right not to live in the city,” the mayor wrote. “Our policies should affirm the notion that New Bedford is a great place to live, and they should make it easier for city government to attract talent, so that our residents can receive the high quality services they deserve.”
When residency waivers have been debated in the past Mitchell has said they allow the city to strike the right balance between its desire to hire the most qualified candidates and the important policy considerations underlying the residency requirement.
The current policy related to the residency requirement states it provides qualified New Bedford residents preference for jobs in city government, cultivates a municipal workforce committed to the city, helps preserve the city’s middle class, and encourages reinvestment of employee wages in the city through consumer spending and the payment of property taxes.
When the mayor vetoes the council’s ordinance it will enter his objections on the record and consider the ordinance again. According to the city charter, if the council passes it again by a two thirds vote of all of its members, the ordinance will be enacted.
Since the ordinance already passed 10 to one, Morad said it appears that the council has the votes to override the mayor’s veto, but said it’s possible the administration will sway some of her colleagues to vote the way he would like them to.
As for the mayor’s criticism of the ordinance allowing employees to move out of the city after 10 years, Morad said they followed the mayor’s lead, since contract negotiation with police officers and firefighters in the city allowed them to move out of the city after 10 years.
Council President Joseph Lopes said Friday that he believes the special committee on residency waivers that he established at the beginning of his latest term as president, worked well prior to and during the coronavirus pandemic to draft language that the body thinks will provide some clear direction about employment in the city and residency waivers.
Lopes said the ordinance the City Council passed clears up the “vague” policy surrounding residency waivers.
Lopes said during discussions in committee it came out that the only way to have strength in the residency ordinance was to de-incentivize employees from living outside New Bedford in the form of the 10% pay reduction for non-residents,
Morad said she hopes this is the end of the residency waiver debate since the city’s legislative body passed an ordinance 10 to and the administration should embrace the fair and equitable ordinance, but said “we will see.”
According to Morad the administration was represented in the special committee on residency waivers, with active participation from a city solicitor, the Chief Financial Officer, and personnel director.
The mayor’s office stated that the individuals were not representing the administration and were consulted on things like the budgetary impact of the ordinance and information related to personnel, they weren’t consulted to weigh in on the crafting of the policy itself.