Wednesday, February 21, 2007

City Workers and City Limits

The question of a residency requirement for city workers is heating up once again. A preliminary contract agreement with a city union representing 1,500 workers—the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Council 93—would allow a cut-off of the requirement after 10 years on the job. The provision is part of a trade-off that brings some gains to management, but also strong disagreement among elected officials and Boston residents.

There have been two periods when the push for a residency requirement was the strongest, in the mid-1970’s and 1993. During both of these times, there were slumps in the Boston housing market, and the exodus of residents from the city (signaled by "for sale" signs) was attracting more notice. Among those supporting a reinvigorated requirement in 1993 were two officials who started out as district City Councilors: Maureen Feeney and Thomas Menino. Fourteen years later, as a fourth-term mayor, Menino has decided to give way on residency, at least for some concessions to management—in this case a higher contribution by employees for health insurance and closer monitoring of their city vehicles.

Supporters of the residency requirement still give it credit for keeping city employees in the neighborhoods who might otherwise have moved out. They say this also means having more city workers with a stake in the neighborhoods and a better understanding of their concerns. Though many city workers are still exempt from the requirement, supporters say their number has been dwindling. The requirement has also been defended as a job opportunity for Boston residents and, in all likelihood, one reason for the growing racial diversity of the city’s workforce. But even a 10-year requirement would still mean new job openings having to be filled by Boston residents.

Perhaps the single most dramatic change in the residency debate since 1993 concerns Boston’s housing market. Instead of using the Boston Public Schools as a reason to move out of the city, some union leaders have lately been talking more about the city’s housing costs. Despite the downturn in housing markets throughout much of the country over the last two years, there has still been little talk about flight from the city alone (as opposed to flight from the cost of living in Massachusetts), and the fall-off in housing prices still lags behind the slowdown in sales. Said the president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, Samuel R. Tyler, "We're coming to a point where the mayor has finally realized that the cost of living in Boston is such a big issue with the unions that it would bring about a change in the cost of health care for the city."

A rollback on the residency requirement for one union doesn’t change a whole city’s population very much by itself, but there’s reason to see the agreement with AFSCME as a precedent. Tyler expects more unions will push for similar changes to the residency requirement, maybe even with shorter time limits. But, even with more retreats on residency, he questions whether there will be any significant change in the commitment of city workers or in Boston's population, especially given their limited numbers. "It's not as if city employees make that much of a difference as far as stability or a strong middle class," he said. Easier to prove by numbers is the effect of residency on electoral politics: more workers living in Boston means more clout for unions and for their political allies.

In a statement released February 21, Mayor Menino said: “Boston still maintains the strongest residency requirement in the state. Our neighborhoods and schools are far better now than they were back in ’93, when I became mayor, and I believe that after living and working in our city for 10 years, most people wouldn’t want to leave.”

On the mayor’s side of the argument, one could note the appeal of certain district and charter schools and, arguably, a growing acceptance of racial diversity. But it’s also possible to view a retreat on the residency requirement as a threat for neighborhoods beset with other challenges. Among those neighborhoods are parts of Dorchester represented by City Council President Maureen Feeney, where a fairly large Catholic population has been adjusting to the consolidation of parishes and the likely consolidation of parish schools.

In a statement from her office the same day, Feeney said: "This is a sad day for Boston. The residency requirement has brought great and tangible benefit to all of our neighborhoods. Weakening residency is a step in the wrong direction and I am outraged that the Mayor would promote a deal that would allow city employees to flee our neighborhoods. The people who serve our city should have a personal investment in our city's future.”

But Tyler argues the retreat on residency is a price that might have to be paid for attracting employees in at least some positions, especially given the dim prospects of an increase in state aid. "Residency," he said, "has been a factor in the city not having been able to recruit the people that they would like at all times."