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Thursday, Sept. 27, 2012 04:45 pm

City needs a residency requirement

Signs of an approaching election season are unmistakable as candidate signs clutter our view, TV ads inundate the airwaves and political party conventions monopolize the news. This upcoming Nov. 6 election is important because voters will help decide who gets the nation’s top job while they pick winners for congressional and state legislative seats, some local offices and ballot initiatives.  And, while Springfield voters get their chance to shape the national, state and local political landscape, a local advisory referendum on residency requirements will also allow Springfield voters to have impact on an issue close to home.

Former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill once famously said “all politics is local.”  Yet in today’s political reality, local issues rarely take center stage when competing with national ones.  This time, though, Springfield voters must pay close attention to the issue of residency requirements because the advisory question embodies more than just dictating where city employees live. It articulates whether we want to preserve Springfield’s identity as a city or adopt a regional vision for our area.  

It is good to build strong regional ties through cooperation and collaboration as long as we maintain a strong, vital urban core.  But when the region’s gain is the city’s loss, it’s time to reflect on our values. Are we going to continue to passively sit back and let the unbalanced and unchecked growth of the city’s outer fringes and beyond suck the life out of Springfield?

Returning to a residency policy, which stood for nearly 25 years in Springfield before being changed in 2000, will not automatically rebuild Springfield.  But it can serve as a catalyst to reverse this destructive regional trend and renew our commitment to an urban identity.

Residency for municipal employees will help taxpayer dollars stay local, counteract “sprawl” or “flight,” increase city home ownership and enhance the tax base, thereby supporting city schools, parks and other local taxing bodies.  Civic engagement may increase as those who work for the city become more invested in its overall welfare.  Many Springfield residents are qualified for and need those good-paying city jobs that now go to residents of surrounding areas like Chatham and Rochester and towns well beyond. Residency policies can also be practical operational tools for government; they may decrease employee absenteeism and produce better performance from employees.

Not everyone agrees that residency for city employees is best for Springfield. Four of our city leaders (Mayor Houston and Aldermen Jobe, Theilen and Griffin) argued vigorously against the advisory referendum during recent city council debates, trying desperately to keep this issue from coming in front of Springfield’s voters.  

Their concern is well-founded. They already suspect there is a strong likelihood that city voters will resoundingly support the advisory referendum.  Their situation could become dicey if the ordinance comes back before them after a favorable referendum.  To remain true to their stated positions, they may have to vote against the will of the people. That’s not a position in which most politicians want to find themselves.

Not all communities need residency requirements. But they are valuable when significant portions of a city are deteriorating while the outer fringes and bedroom communities thrive and expand. Springfield certainly falls into this category. Our struggling inner core, older neighborhoods and public schools need help now.  If a residency requirement provides an additional tool for revitalizing our city, then we should use it.  

There are political factors to consider in this debate. Powerful entities in Springfield and Sangamon County see the future of their power and control directly tied to strong suburban and rural areas.  Yet these areas do not provide enough high-paying government jobs for elected officials to control and parcel out.  Springfield city jobs, and jobs with other large public entities like the Springfield school district and Sangamon County government, are highly coveted and are key to maintaining the patronage system.  If city jobs are so valuable and are funded by city taxpayers, then we should use them to directly benefit the city, not the county.

With less than six weeks before the election, those in favor and opposed will pitch their positions to the public.  Given the degree of push-back thus far, we should expect a public relations assault from the opponents of residency requirements.  That’s what happened with the advisory referendum to cut the size of the Sangamon County Board in 2008.  Prominent community members and groups may line up publicly against this proposal, so supporters should organize and deliver a strong case to the voters.  

It would be ideal if urban, suburban and rural areas were all vibrant. Instead, we have witnessed a steady erosion of the city, contrasted with an explosion of growth in the outer areas. Voters who believe in a strong Springfield should embrace this opportunity and vote yes on residency requirements.

Sheila Stocks-Smith is a special projects consultant and community/political activist in Springfield.  

The Citizens Club of Springfield will present a panel discussion Friday, Sept. 28, on the residency requirement. Panelists include: Ward 7 alderman Joe McMenamin; Tony Burton, president of Firefighters Local #37; Paul Moore, assistant business manager of IBEW Local 193 and James Zerkle, former City of Springfield corporate counsel. The program is 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. on the third floor of the Hoogland Center for the Arts.

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