Firefighter group backs keeping residency rule Group says rule helps Milwaukee maintain tax base
By Gitte Laasby of the Journal Sentinel April 12, 2011
The Milwaukee Brotherhood of Firefighters came out in support of the city’s residency requirement Tuesday, calling it a way to maintain the city’s tax base.
The firefighters group is concerned that a proposal by suburban Republican legislators to drop the requirement would lead people to flee the city.
“It’s not so much what will happen right now. What will happen 10 years from now, 15 years from now?” said Brotherhood President DeWayne Smoots. “Everybody couldn’t put their house on the market and move right now anyway, but what about 10 years from now . . . Detroit didn’t fall apart over night. It fell apart over years.”
Milwaukee is already the fourth-poorest city in the nation, he said.
According to U.S. Census Bureau figures, Milwaukee had the fourth highest poverty rate among U.S. cities with a population of 250,000 or more. In 2009, Milwaukee’s poverty rate reached 27%. Only Detroit (36.4%), Cleveland (35%) and Buffalo (28.8%) had higher poverty rates among cities with populations greater than 250,000. Milwaukee was ranked 11th in 2008.
Legislators proposed allowing Milwaukee police and firefighters to live anywhere in a five-county area rather than within city limits.A Common Council committee recently opposed that bill, saying when residency requirements were lifted in other cities, 45% to 70% of city workers moved out of Baltimore, Detroit and Minneapolis, and 75% of police officers and firefighters left St. Louis.
A similar measure would remove residency requirements for Milwaukee Public Schools teachers.
Sen. Leah Vukmir (R-Wauwatosa), who supports abolishing the residency requirement, said other cities that have eliminated the residency requirement did not see a mass exodus that harmed property values.
Smoots said he’s not worried that firefighters would care less about Milwaukee if they lived somewhere else, but that it would be a detriment to the city financially.
“The bigger picture is the betterment of Milwaukee,” he said. “I would love to go somewhere I can get a better house and better taxes. I would love that, but . . . I came back to Milwaukee to be in Milwaukee. Not to run away from Milwaukee. If a relationship is in trouble, you don’t just say stop. If I’m married and committed to my wife, I don’t go sleep nowhere else.”
Some police and fire union leaders have said their members want the freedom to decide where to live.
Supporters of the residency requirement say it doesn’t harm recruitment. The last time the city posted firefighter and police jobs, between 3,500 and 5,700 people applied, according to Ald. Michael Murphy and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.
Smoots said his organization also wants to encourage the mayor to hire more black and female firefighters.
Milwaukee is 39% percent black and 37% white, according to the latest census figures. By contrast, fewer than one in seven firefighters are black, he said.
“The last 20 years, the Fire Department has only hired 20 African-Americans through their regular recruitment. To me, that’s appalling,” he said. “I think it’s important because there’s a level of service. It’s not just black or white or male or female. I’ve been able to help diffuse situations because of having some insight. When I see somebody who’s getting upset, I understand where it’s coming from.”