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Springfield Residency: In or Out?

Springfield takes on the sticky question of whether municipal workers should have to live in the city.

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Friday, March 02, 2012

In 1995, the city of Springfield passed a strongly worded ordinance that required most municipal workers to live in the city.

This wasn't the first time the issue of employee residency had reared its head; the matter had been kicking around City Hall for decades. But in '95, under then-Mayor Mike Albano, the push to require residency once again became a politically appealing notion, backed by officials who argued that it would reap all sorts of benefits—concrete and less tangible—for the city.

One problem: enforcement of the ordinance has been lax, at best. According to city officials, 37 percent of Springfield's roughly 1,400 municipal workers live outside the city. (Those figures do not include the 4,800 people who work for the Springfield School Department. Within that group, teachers are exempt from municipal residency requirements by state law.)

Of those more than 500 city-side workers who live outside of Springfield, most do so in violation of the ordinance (although, some would argue, with at least tacit approval from the city, which failed to enforce the regulation for so long). Others do so with official waivers from the mayor—waivers that several city councilors say have been given out much too freely.

Seventeen years after the residency ordinance was passed, some city councilors are now calling for a renewed commitment to the requirement, with strong penalties, including the possibility of termination, for those who don't comply. They contend that a residency requirement helps the local economy and signals a level of commitment that's fair to expect of city employees. Council President Jimmy Ferrera puts it simply: "I believe that if you collect a city paycheck, you should live in the city."

Not surprisingly, many city employees are worried about what a revived residency ordinance would mean for them. They include members of municipal labor unions who may support the requirement in principle but have significant concerns about fair enforcement that doesn't violate workers' rights.

Meanwhile, at least one veteran councilor suggests that the proposal is a band-aid solution to much deeper problems facing Springfield—problems the city needs to address so that municipal workers, and others, would actually want to live in there. "Then you wouldn't need to worry about residency, because people would be happy to live here," said At-Large City Councilor Tim Rooke.

*

Springfield's existing residency ordinance requires all employees hired on or after March 17, 1995, to reside in the city for as long as they hold their jobs. Employees already on the payroll could live outside the city, but if they received a promotion on or after that date, they'd have one year to move into Springfield. Under the ordinance, the city could not enter any contract with a labor union that would exempt workers from the residency requirement.

The ordinance also requires employees to submit a "certificate of residency" to the city annually, "signed under the pains and penalties of perjury," attesting to their place of residence. In addition, it created a compliance commission to investigate suspected violations. Workers found to be in violation would be fired.

Tough as it sounds on paper, in practice, the regulation has been repeatedly violated, without sanctions. The ordinance was also changed several times over the years, including a 2009 amendment by the Control Board—imposed by the state Legislature in 2004 to oversee the city's finances—allowing the mayor to grant waivers to individual employees "upon written determination that the taxpayers and residents ... would be better served through the hiring, appointment or promotion of a non-resident."

In November, the Springfield Republican printed a list of 37 city employees who have received waivers. The list included workers from across city departments and across the pay scale, from a Parks Department groundskeeper who earns $26,083 a year to several highly placed, highly paid officials, among them Geraldine McCaffrey, the city's director of housing, who earns $85,905; Insurance Director Linda Parent, who earns $96,607; and Robert Maggi, deputy chief information officer, who earns $100,000. Ironically, William Mahoney, the city's director of labor relations and human resources, lives in Ludlow and was hired to his $139,999 job in 2009 with a waiver from Mayor Domenic Sarno.

The compliance commission created by the 1995 ordinance has been dormant for years, and city employees had not been required to file residency certificates in recent years. This year, at the City Council's urging, employees were called on to file those certificates by Feb. 1. Ferrera, the Council president, said councilors are awaiting from Human Resources a full report on compliance.

*

The push to toughen up Springfield's residency requirement began in October, when the City Council sent to committee a non-binding resolution calling for the city to make residency requirements a part of all future contract negotiations. The city has 23 contracts with labor unions, most of which expire this year. Several already include language requiring residency, while others include an exemption.

Last week the Council's general government committee held the first of two hearings on a draft revised residency ordinance, which includes a concession to employees who violated the rule during the long stretch of years when it went unenforced. (A second meeting on the matter is scheduled for March 21 at 5 p.m. in City Hall.) Under the proposed changes, existing workers who live outside Springfield without a waiver would be subject to an annual two-week unpaid suspension as long as they continue to live outside the city.

Ward 2 Councilor Mike Fenton has been one of the most vocal proponents of reviving the residency ordinance, along with Ward 7's Tim Allen. While Fenton supports the suspension option out of fairness to employees already on the payroll, going forward, he said, new hires should be held in strict compliance with the ordinance or face termination. In addition, employees who falsely claim on their residency certificate to live in the city should be fired, said Fenton, who would also recommend that they be prosecuted for perjury.

As in the 1995 version, the draft ordinance calls for cases of suspected violations to be handled by a compliance commission; the new version also calls for the appointment of a residency compliance officer within the personnel department. Like the existing ordinance, the draft proposal allows the Police Department to be called on to investigate those cases, although Fenton noted that that's one of the details the Council needs to sort out.

"We don't want to have this commission be a harasser of city employees," he said. "But what we want to make sure is we have the tools to keep people honest, and keep them to their word."

Another detail to be addressed: residency waivers. "The Council has taken great exception to the amount of waivers that have been granted by the mayor, especially to department heads," Fenton said. While he can imagine some circumstances under which it might be appropriate for a hire to receive a waiver, in general, Fenton said, "I think it should be very difficult. And no department head, under any circumstance, should have a waiver, ever."

Right now, the mayor has the sole authority to issue waivers. Fenton supports a change, spelled out in the draft revision, that would require the mayor to propose waivers to the City Council, which would have final approval. "The ordinance is only as strong as the person with the waiver-granting authority," he said.

"I think the exceptions should be few and far between, and far too many exceptions are being made right now," Fenton continued. And that, he added, hurts morale among those city employees who have been abiding by the ordinance while their co-workers, or even bosses, have not.

*

Rick Brown is president of the Pioneer Valley Central Labor Council and secretary/treasurer of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1459, which represents certain Department of Public Works employees as well as security guards, nurses and substitute teachers in the School Department.

Brown told the Advocate that he does not oppose the residency concept. "It's not a bad thing," he said. "It's a wonderful thing that employees would live in the city."

But Brown is concerned about his members' being treated fairly. When the school guards and substitute teachers received letters asking them to fill out compliance certificates, he said, it included a warning that they would be taken off the city payroll if they were not in compliance. "People get these letters, and they're shocked," Brown said.

In response, the union sent a letter to City Hall warning that it would file an unfair labor practice charge if the city did not retract the threat made in the letter, as residency is a mandatory subject of bargaining in those employees' contracts.

Brown does not object to the city requiring residency of employees hired after the existing ordinance is amended. But to fire longtime employees for violating a regulation that was ignored for so long is "ludicrous," he said.

Calvin Feliciano, a vice president at the labor council, considers residency requirements good for communities. While his union, Service Employees International Union Local 1199, does not represent any Springfield city employees, many of its members live in Springfield and would benefit from good-paying jobs going to city residents, not to people from neighboring communities. When people live in the cities where they work, Feliciano said, they are more likely to spend their money there. And keeping a strong base of blue-collar jobs within the city would help make neighborhoods more stable. "The investment in the local community raises everything. Everyone gets uplifted by this," Feliciano said.

Those positive effects, he added, are diluted when too many workers are exempt from residency, especially those at the high end of the pay scale. "Waivers get handed out left and right. That's been a major hurdle," Feliciano said. "You get a department head or someone with a pretty decent salary—these are really good-paying jobs, and then they take that money elsewhere."

But, like Brown, Feliciano believes any renewed residency requirement should apply to new hires only. Forcing a worker to uproot his or her home life to move into the city or risk losing two weeks' pay each year is too harsh a penalty, given the city's lack of enforcement for so many years, he said. Indeed, Feliciano questioned whether the city would have legal grounds to suspend workers in that situation. "I could see lawsuits coming left and right," he said.

Ward 8 Councilor John Lysak, who chairs the general government committee, said he supports the general concept of a residency requirement, and feels it's especially important for department heads to live in the city. But as his committee hears feedback about the proposal, he said, he's increasingly inclined to agree that any new rules should apply to new hires only.

He's also not convinced that the two-week suspension provision is fair, noting that not many people can afford what amounts to a loss of almost five percent of their pay.

"For 17 years, the ball was dropped by the city, period," he said. "[The ordinance] wasn't enforced." Some city employees claim they were never informed about the residency ordinance, Lysak noted; others say they were told by their supervisors not to worry about it.

Lysak also wonders whether the city should grant any waivers going forward. In a city the size of Springfield, he said, there should be plenty of qualified candidates for most jobs. In cases where the best candidate truly does live out of town, he suggested, perhaps that person could be hired with the provision that he or she move to Springfield, with adequate time—18 months, maybe—to sell his or her house and find a new place in the city.

For the city to punish employees after ignoring the ordinance for so long wouldn't be fair, Lysak said: "It's wrong, because we made the mistake of not enforcing it."

But Ferrera noted that, enforced or not, the residency requirement has been on the books for 17 years, and people who skirted it were aware of what they were doing. "They knew when they took the job ... that was part of the package," he said. "This is why people lose faith in government. It's not okay to know that you're breaking the law and just going on the premise that no one is enforcing it. "

While a two-week suspension might seem stiff to some workers, Ferrera said, "My personal opinion [is] a two-week penalty is really not a harsh penalty." In fact, he said, some employees might regard it as a sort of fee that they pay for the freedom to live outside the city "I don't see that as being fair," he said. "It's not solving the problem. Those people are never coming back. They'll never buy a home in Springfield."

And that would undercut what Ferrera considers a key argument for a residency requirement: the economic benefits of having most of the city's more than 6,000 employees living there. "If we had that group of individuals living in the city, obviously it would help out significantly our local economy," from bolstering the listless housing market to bringing more money into small businesses, Ferrera said. "Would it correct the whole problem? Probably not. Would it help? Absolutely."

*

But At-Large Councilor Tim Rooke says the city needs to address the reasons public employees—and other would-be residents—choose not to live in Springfield before it can start requiring residency.

Rooke told the Advocate that he supports a limited residency requirement, applied to department heads and deputy department heads. But beyond that, Rooke said, "we should hire the best and the brightest for any job in the city"—and sometimes that will be a non-resident. If there are two equally qualified applicants for a position and only one lives in Springfield, "you naturally go with the city resident," he said. But in general, when making hiring decisions, "I'd rather side with performance."

The renewed interest in residency, Rooke said, seems driven more by politics than good policy, and it doesn't address the valid concerns many people have about investing in a home in Springfield. "Probably the best use of time would be to find out why people are moving out of the city," he said. "I think they'd be compelled to tell you it's because the school system is in disrepair and they don't feel safe in the city, in certain areas. If we address those issues, people would be moving back in the city."

Springfield families with the means to do so often bypass the city schools and pay for their kids to go to private schools, as he and his wife do, Rooke said. Others move out of the city to send their children to public schools in neighboring communities. Forcing city employees, especially those making working- or middle-class wages, to move into the city might mean asking them to sell a home in a down economy, to uproot their family, to consider taking on tuition costs they haven't had to pay before. That, Rooke said, doesn't seem fair to the employees. And it would dissuade some potential hires from even applying for jobs, leaving the city with a diminished pool of candidates.

Rather than force people to move in under threat of losing their jobs, Rooke said, the city should concentrate on making Springfield a more appealing place to live, from promoting the arts and other attractions to draw in young professionals to improving the schools to bring in young families.

The city also needs to deal with what Rooke calls the "third rail" that no one wants to address: "the oversaturation of subsidized housing and group homes and level-three sex offenders" in the city. "Those problems have to be cleared up before you want to start discussing attracting people to the city," he said. "Each year we ignore them, the problems get larger and harder to correct."

Rooke doesn't dispute the benefits that would come if all city employees lived in Springfield. "I'd love to have ... those families living in the city, because it would make the city stronger. But you can't force people to live somewhere where they don't feel safe and they don't believe in the school system," he said. "Some of us think we're a five-star restaurant and don't understand why people aren't lining up at the door."

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