Repeal would weaken city when middle-class residents move
James Causey MJS 12/15/12
Ending Milwaukee’s residency law may not turn the city into Wisconsin’s Detroit, but it won’t help a city that is already ranked as one of the poorest and most segregated in the nation.
The middle class provides the backbone that keeps cities such as ours strong. But some Republicans don’t see that. And since they will control both houses of the Legislature come January, Milwaukee officials are convinced lawmakers will take another stab at ending the city’s residency law.
If the residency law is repealed, there is no doubt that workers will leave the city for the suburbs. And that would be a shame. There is much to recommend living in the city that you work in. When a city loses such connections with its teachers, police officers or firefighters, it’s hard to re-establish them.
If you think Milwaukee Police Department relations are strained with citizens now, imagine the detachment of officers who are no longer vested in such an intimate way with the city they serve.
The residency law forces people to be good citizens. If you are required to live in Milwaukee, then you naturally have an interest in seeing the city succeed. You are also more likely to speak out about problems because they affect you.
I know Milwaukee has its problems. Poverty is too high; too many children are underperforming in school; and the city’s hyper segregation has contributed to often terrible race relations.
But lifting the residency law makes dealing with those problems even harder. It leaves those who stay to try to figure it out.
The residency law here has been on the books since 1938. When prospective employees apply for city jobs, they know that one of the requirements is that they have to live within the city limits.
I’m not trying to dictate where people can live. Live where you want. But leave the jobs for people who want to be here. If you still want to be an officer and live in Brown Deer, then become a Brown Deer Police officer. If you want to be a teacher in Milwaukee but live in Brookfield, teach in Brookfield.
And if you believe residency requirements are unfair, consider that even in the private sector, companies often move people around or ask that some employees be close to the office, and the U.S. military routinely stations servicemen and women according to military need.
Mayor Tom Barrett believes passionately that repealing the law would have a devastating effect on property values. If the requirement is lifted, Barrett estimates that half of city employees would migrate out of the city over a 10-year period. When the idea was posed before, he said the mayor of West Allis told him that he would love it if Milwaukee officers could move to West Allis to increase his city’s property values.
The last thing any mayor wants is for the property tax base of his city to flee. That’s why Barrett is fighting so hard – and he should be. The city’s life blood is threatened.
Any Republican willing to fight with local officials over this issue only needs to look at cities that have repealed residency to see how they have fared.
Those cities have seen sharp population declines. Toledo, Ohio, repealed its law in 2009, and now 24% of city workers live outside the city; Minneapolis repealed in 1999, 70% live outside the city; Baltimore repealed in 1995, 60% live outside the city; and Detroit repealed in 1999, 45% live outside the city.
Gov. Scott Walker said he has supported changing the residency rules for teachers in the past because he said it would be a way to help MPS hang on to good teachers and recruit from outside of Milwaukee.
Last week, he said if a really strong MPS teacher works in the district for a few years and wants to start a family in the suburbs, then she should not lose her teaching job because of it.
Third-generation Detroit pawnbroker Les Gold, of the TV reality show “Hardcore Pawn” said many factors contributed to Detroit’s decline but he said changing the residency law didn’t help.
Gold, 62, said the riots in the 1960s and the decline in the auto and manufacturing industries crippled his city and caused half the population to leave.
While Gold didn’t know much about Milwaukee, he said the one thing that keeps the middle class from moving is a strong school system.
“If your school system is strong, people with kids will stay. If it isn’t, then they will leave,” Gold said.
Fixing the problems in Milwaukee will not be easy but it will be even harder if a portion of the middle class leaves. The residency law is that important to our future. And it’s not asking that much of city workers. Keep it.
James E. C