Should  Milwaukee cops and firefighters be required to live within the city, or should they have the choice to move anywhere within the five-county metropolitan region?

Senator Leah Vukmir (R-Wauwatosa)  authored companion Senate Bill 30 to eliminate residency requirements for police and fire personnel in Class One cities across the state. Milwaukee is the only city with that designation, but Madison has the population level to petition to become a Class One city if so desired.

The bill would add language to State Statute 62.53, allowing Milwaukee police and firefighters to live anywhere within Milwaukee, Racine, Waukesha, Washington and Ozaukee counties. As of today, it would affect 2,858 city officers and firefighters.

But Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, Fire Chief Mark Rohlfing and Police Chief Edward Flynn want the residency requirement (in place since 1938) to remain, claiming a change in the statute would lead to a middle class flight to the suburbs, a reduction in property values and a loss of ownership in the departments tasked with protecting city residents and property.

“When employees say to me ‘I have to live in the city’ I tell them no, you get to live in the city,” Barrett told the Senate Committee on Labor, Public Safety, and Urban Affairs. He added that this is the city that gives them a salary, a pension and benefits.

Barrett said the departments are not having a problem finding candidates to be officers, with over 3,500 applicants for the MPD and 5,700 for the MFD. Plus, the turnover rate for the police department has been relatively low, with 12 officers voluntarily leaving in 2010, and only 2 firefighters leaving in the same period.

“Do we have a problem filling vacancies? A resounding ‘no,’” he said.

Barrett added that eliminating residency would change the nature of the city, similar to what happened in Detroit when the Michigan legislature eliminated the requirements on residency in 1999.

“53 percent of the officers left that city. In Minneapolis, 70 percent of the officers left the city when residency was lifted,” Barrett said.

He went on to describe the importance of keeping police and firefighters in the city, as homeowners. He said 91 percent of these employees live in owner-occupied homes, while overall 71 percent of city residents own their homes. He cited a statistic that police and firefighter homes have an average value of $166,000, while the average home value across the city is only $123,000.

“These are the middle class, and if 53 percent of them move out of the city it will drive down values.”

Barrett added that if people were unhappy with the residency requirement they could vote the elected officials who continue the policy out and choose leaders who would give this bargaining issue away. He said the issue has been bargained and gone to arbitration four times over the last 10 years, with the arbitrator always siding with the city, noting that unions have been unwilling to give up enough to make it worth the city’s while to end the practice.

Barrett’s description of fair bargaining of the issue is disputed by Milwaukee Police Supervisors Organization President Michael Edwards. He says city labor negotiators either say no outright or challenge the union to get legislation passed to remove the requirement.

“Give me the freedom to choose where I can live and practice my liberty,” said Milwaukee firefighter Tim Latona. Other officers echoed Latona’s sentiment, asking for the freedom to choose.

Barrett said the bill is a blatant power grab by those outside of Milwaukee to who want to control the city, counter to the idea of local control. He described local control as the ability of municipalities to determine the rules and regulations regarding the operation of their communities. Essentially, it’s an extension of the the idea that all politics are local and the best government is that which is closest to the people.

But Vukmir, Kramer and Sen. Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin) define the concept differently. Instead of local control being a municipality’s oversight of its own rules and regulations, it is actually control over one’s person and their home.

“The choice of employment shouldn’t limit your choice of home,” Lazich said. “It is none of an employers business where their employees live. In this case, local control of the person outweighs the government’s local control.”

Vukmir said she authored the bill after hearing from many officers and firefighters who live in her district (which contains the far west-central neighborhoods of Milwaukee) that want the ability to move if they choose to do so. She would like to see all residency requirements repealed, using a mileage maximum for determining where such employees reside.

She focused on the idea of changing lifestyles, using her brother, a former MPD officer, as an example.

“Everyone that works in Milwaukee knows of the requirement, but they usually start out in these jobs when they’re young. Then their life circumstances change with marriage, children, et cetera,” Vukmir said. “My brother ended his Milwaukee Police career to take care of my mother in our suburban childhood home, but if he could, he would have remained an officer in Milwaukee if the residency wasn’t in effect.”

She said property values wouldn’t drop, since officers and firefighters wouldn’t leave homes vacant or take low-ball prices just to move. Instead, she contends the low values and unemployment in Milwaukee are the fault of the poor quality of education offered by MPS.

Assembly sponsor of the bill, Bill Kramer (R-Waukesha), said arguments that the legislature was punishing Milwaukee, or that property values would drop without this rule were specious and degrading to the good people and attractions within the city.

“We’re not punishing Milwaukee, we consider this a correction to a fundamental wrong,” Kramer said. “And the idea that officers will flee is offensive and besmirches the integrity of these employees.”

Overall, the prevailing feeling on the committee was the idea that local control of this issue doesn’t trump the individual right to live where one so chooses,  and that the state has a right to step in because the success of Wisconsin rests on the success of Milwaukee.

However, there was one lone voice on the committee throughout the five hour public hearing, that of Sen. Spencer Coggs (D-Milwaukee). He repeatedly asked those seeking the bill’s passage what they think would happen if this bill were passed, often projecting his disagreement with the proposal.

In the end, the committee simply adjourned without taking a vote to forward this to the full Senate.

The Senate Committee on Education will meet today (Wednesday, Mar. 23) to discuss SB 34, which would remove residency requirements for Milwaukee Public School employees. The issues and arguments will likely be the same, but how will this all end?

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