Earlier this year, the Springfield City Council took up the issue of residency requirements for municipal employees, dusting off an old ordinance that called for many city workers to live in the city.
Although on the books since 1995, the ordinance had been ignored by some employees—some with official permission, some without. The result, according to residency backers: lost economic opportunities for the city, plus damaged morale among Springfield’s workforce, who were left to wonder why some employees were expected to toe the line and not others. (See “Springfield Residency: In or Out?“, March 2, 2012.)
After an initial flurry of interest, the matter has been quiet in recent months. Last week, the Springfield branch of the NAACP called for the Council to move ahead with plans to revive and amend the ordinance. NAACP members support the requirement for several reasons, the Rev. Talbert Swan II, president of the branch, told the Advocate: “It is about having city jobs accessible to city residents, but it’s also so that folks who work in the city pay into the tax base of the city and are connected to the residents by actually residing with them.”
The existing ordinance calls for all Springfield employees hired or promoted after March 17, 1995, to live in the city. Certain groups of employees were exempt under collective bargaining agreements or state law, including city teachers.
The ordinance also called for employees to submit a certificate attesting to their residency annually, “signed under the pains and penalties of perjury.” Violators would be fired.
But that’s not what happened. According to City Hall figures from earlier this year, 37 percent of affected employees live outside Springfield. More recent figures from the Human Resources Department, based on almost 1,200 residency certificates collected from employees after some councilors revived the matter, show that 60 percent of workers live in the city. Of the rest, most reported having waivers or exemptions, while 15 admitted being in violation of the rule.
In 2009, the state-imposed Finance Control Board gave the mayor the power to grant waivers to the residency requirement. According to a report in the Springfield Republican, Mayor Domenic Sarno has granted at least 37 waivers; the list includes several top officials, including, ironically, Director of Housing Geraldine McCaffrey and Director of Labor Relations and Human Resources William Mahoney.
“We understand the exemptions based on state law and those that are exempt because of collective bargaining,” Swan said. “But ultimately, the branch is of the opinion that all city employees—teachers, firemen, police—ought to live in the city.”
Living where they work would help employees better understand the community, Swan said. For instance, “it would sensitize teachers in terms of them understanding the atmosphere in which the children live. … A lot of times they’ll come from other places, and they have set in their minds what a Springfield kid is. They come here for a nine-to-five job and then they go back to their own community, and our kids get the short end of the stick.”
Getting all city workers to live in Springfield won’t be easy, Swan acknowledged. “We know there are some serious hurdles that have to be crossed,” he said.
Those hurdles include opposition from labor unions who say they don’t object to a residency requirement but do object to penalties outlined in a draft revised ordinance. That proposal, sponsored by Ward 2 Councilor Mike Fenton and Ward 7 Councilor Tim Allen, still calls for employees who falsely claim to live in the city to be fired. But, in a concession to workers who point to the lack of enforcement over the years, it allows workers who already live outside the city without a waiver to keep their jobs but pay a penalty of two weeks’ salary every year they remain in violation. (The proposed ordinance would also give the City Council final approval of mayoral waivers.)
That concession still feels unjust, however, to some unions, three of whom have filed unfair labor practice charges against the city.
Swan opposes the provision to allow workers to remain outside the city if they pay a penalty; highly paid employees, he said, will simply view that as a fee to live in the suburbs. “Saying that someone has gotten away with breaking the law for a long time so we shouldn’t expect them to come into compliance is crazy,” he said.
“The bottom line is, if Springfield is good enough to draw a salary from in order to support your family and pay your bills, then it ought to be good enough to live in,” Swan continued. “I think that the City Council needs to have some testicular fortitude and actually take action on the issue.”
Fenton said he welcomes input like the NAACP’s. “I think it’s really encouraging and great the community is getting involved in this, particularly with Rev. Swan’s leadership,” he said. The proposed ordinance is currently before the Council’s general government committee, and Fenton said he’s eager to see it come to a full Council vote. “Things have stagnated, but we do have a version of the ordinance that some of us like, and we’re ready to debate,” Fenton said.
At deadline, Ward 8 Councilor John Lysak, who chairs the committee, hadn’t returned a call from the Advocate.