July 30, 2015

Should city workers live in Milwaukee?

By Sen. Lena Taylor

Being an elected official is an important job and one that I take very seriously. I see myself as a public servant, not a politician. Each and every day, the things I do in my job impact the people I serve. Whether it’s voting on funding for education, taxes, the environment or helping a constituent navigate our government’s bureaucracy, my actions directly impact the lives of those I represent.

Our community puts a lot of responsibility in the hands of those of us entrusted to work for the best interest of the people of Milwaukee. Some may call public service a career, but I say it’s a calling. I believe public servants who are stakeholders in their community do a better job serving their community. While very few people would ever question why a legislator should live in their district, what about a law enforcement officer? What about a bureaucrat?

Milwaukee has a 75-year-old requirement that all city workers live in the city. Yet two years ago, the Republican Legislature repealed Milwaukee’s residency requirement without a single vote from any Milwaukee lawmakers. Had it not been for a court challenge, the new law would have opened the door for law enforcement officers and other city workers to move outside of the city. The Republican arguments are simple; as long as you work hard and do your job, who cares where you live? Shouldn’t police officers, fire fighters and the person who answers the phones at City Hall be allowed to raise their families wherever they want?

Thankfully, an appeals court recently disagreed, ruling Milwaukee’s residency requirement legal. As an elected official, I supported Milwaukee’s residency requirement. As someone who lives in Milwaukee, I hope this column explains why you should support it too.

I certainly get where opponents of residency requirements are coming from. But I have a different perspective. There are many reasons why a large municipality such as Milwaukee requires its public servants to live in the city.

There is something to be said for being a part of the community you represent. The City of Milwaukee is one of our largest employers. Just imagine what would happen to our local economy if we suddenly eliminated our age-old residency requirement. We need to reverse the course of suburban flight, not encourage it. We need more people living, working and spending their free time in Milwaukee. That is what will truly turn our economy around. 

But this is more than just about money. Public servants must put the needs of the public ahead of their own. If the City of Milwaukee is your employer, the needs of Milwaukee don’t become irrelevant when you clock out at the end of the work day. Response times are a critical reason why city employees should live in the city. Imagine if all our snowplow drivers lived in Brookfield in the middle of a snow emergency. Imagine if our public health workers had to commute in from Madison during a public health crisis. Imagine if, heaven forbid, we have to call in off-duty law enforcement or firefighters to handle a crisis and it takes them an hour to get to work.

Response times are just the tip of the ice burg. The elimination of residency requirements has allowed many police forces to be staffed by officers who live in an entirely different community. Fifty-three percent of Detroit’s police force lives outside of the city. In Baltimore, 77 percent of the police force lives someplace else. Take what happened in Ferguson, where protests and riots broke out after the shooting of Michael Brown. One clear issue in Ferguson is that their police force doesn’t reflect their community. Do we want something like that to happen in Milwaukee? Of course not!

We are all in this together. The strength of our economy, the strength of our city and the strength of our neighborhoods affects us all. As public workers, we are all Milwaukee, regardless if we are law enforcement, snow plow drivers or public health workers. We need this city and this city needs us. The elimination of residency requirements would hurt our economy, our neighborhoods and ultimately, those we serve.

Senator Lena Taylor was born and raised in Milwaukee. She lives in Milwaukee with her son in the same neighborhood she grew up in.