The next time you see Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, ask him about his map. It’s the Mayor’s latest weapon in his battle to stop the state from eliminating residency requirements for municipal employees in Wisconsin. More than 120 municipalities have rules spelling out where their employees can live. But Governor Walker wants to change that. He says residency requirements are unnecessary and outdated, even counter-productive, and he has included language in his state budget that would end them.
Mayor Barrett says the Governor’s proposal doesn’t belong in the budget, since it’s not a fiscal item. But Barrett’s concerns go much deeper. In a recent e-mail to supporters, Barrett said an end to the city’s 75-year-old residency requirement could “destabilize” Milwaukee. I pressed the Mayor on that claim in a recent television interview. He said philosophically he agrees with the notion that people should be able to live where they want, but that local municipalities should be able to determine the conditions of employment for the people they hire. In Barrett’s world, that translates into a simple reality. If you don’t want to live in Milwaukee, don’t apply for a job with the city. He said there’s been no shortage of applicants.
Perhaps more important, Barrett said the value of assessed property in Milwaukee had fallen five billion dollars because of the economic downturn. He argued that based on experiences in other cities, such as Detroit, Minneapolis, Baltimore, and Cleveland, significant numbers of city employees were likely to leave the city should the residency requirement be lifted. Barrett was making the case that there was great risk to his city, and he wanted to show me a map he carried with him into the television studio. You can see it here. Because of the amount of data in the file, it takes about 10-15 seconds to present itself.
The map shows the gravity of Milwaukee’s foreclosure crisis. Foreclosed properties are in red. As of last week, there were nearly 2600. Blue represents where the more than 7,000 city employees live. Besides helping stabilize struggling sections of Milwaukee, city employees are the backbone of a number of healthy, middle-class neighborhoods, including Bay View and the southwest, far south, and far west sides. These neighborhoods are home to hundreds of police officers and firefighters. But what happens if, as the Mayor believes, 40 to 50 per cent of those blue dots—city employees—move outside the city? Will there be a dramatic downward pressure on property values?
The Mayor contends the end of residency was a promise Governor Walker made to the Milwaukee police and firefighters unions in an effort to gain their support during his bid for Governor. Walker argues that personal freedom should trump conditions of employment, and that at the end of the day, it’s up to the city to become a more attractive place to live. Neither man knows exactly what will happen should the requirement be eliminated. Nor do they know what Mayor Barrett’s map will look like 10 years from now. But if Barrett is right, it will be a lot less blue, and Milwaukee could be a very different city.
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As a 27-year resident of the City of Milwaukee I agree with Mayor Tom Barrett. I resent the concept the someone can earn a living off of my tax dollars and then go live somewhere else. If people want to work for the City they must live in it.
Put another way, if residency requirements are limitations on “freedom,” then why do we have any at all? Why not allow judges to live wherever they please and not in the counties where they preside? Why not allow citizens who reside in any state work for the State of Wisconsin? Going even further, why should state senators and representatives have to live in their own districts? Residency requirements have their place and it should be up to those in Milwaukee to decide who may work for the city and not those in Madison who have no interest in the welfare of this city or any real connection to it.
I enjoyed studying the Mayor’s map, in part because I grew up in one of the “blue” neighborhoods in which City of Milwaukee employees are concentrated. My father was a maintenance man for the Milwaukee Public
Schools, and when I was a boy, it seemed like half the adults on my street worked for Milwaukee in one capacity or another. Today, my oldest daughter is a high school teacher for the Milwaukee Public Schools, and she also lives in one of the “blue” neighborhoods.
If one actually asked Milwaukee employees about the residency requirement, one might have a surprising addition for the current debate. Those in favor of maintaining the requirement say it is necessary for the socio-economic stability and well-being of Milwaukee, while those opposed to the requirement say its elimination will guarantee the employees’ “freedom.” Might it be the case that the employees, both in father’s day and in the present, like living in Milwaukee? Might it be that the employees neither see themselves as sources of stability nor feel their freedom is being denied by the residency requirement? Perhaps they simply like to call Milwaukee home. I know I I consider it a great place.