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Thursday, Oct. 4, 2012 02:29 pm

Unions not worried by residency referendum

Representatives from two of the most powerful unions representing rank-and-file Springfield municipal employees didn’t sound worried last week at a panel discussion on a proposal to reinstitute a residency requirement for city workers.

“If Alderman (Joe) McMenamin (a leading proponent of residency for city workers) wants to come to the table with residency issues, we welcome that,” said Tony Burton, president of the union that represents Springfield firefighters, half of whom live outside city limits.

Paul Moore, assistant business manager of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers that represents City Water, Light and Power employees, said much the same thing during the presentation at the Hoogland Center for the Arts sponsored by the Citizens Club of Springfield: The union is willing to talk about residency when the current collective bargaining agreement expires.

“If they want to present it (residency) in three years, we’ll talk about it,” Moore said.

The amount of money the city would collect from property taxes if city workers were required to live in Springfield would pale in comparison with the amount the city would have to pay in raises in order to get a residency requirement added to collective bargaining agreements, Burton said. Under that scenario, residency is a bargaining chip, and neither side can expect to get something for nothing.

But James Zerkle, former corporation counsel who was the city’s top lawyer from 1987 to 1995, said that collective bargaining has nothing to do with whether city employees should be required to live inside Springfield city limits.

When the city first installed a residency requirement in 1976, it did so via an ordinance, not through collective bargaining, Zerkle pointed out. Similarly, when the city rescinded the residency requirement in 2000, it did so with an ordinance, not during contract negotiations with any union.

The upshot is, the city can do what it wants regarding residency without fear that unions will be able to extract concessions during contract negotiations because residency has not historically been part of collective bargaining, Zerkle said.

“They are not going to get anything if they go to binding arbitration (over residency) because they gave nothing up,” Zerkle said.

A non-binding referendum on the Nov. 6 ballot asks voters whether employees hired in the future should be required to live in the city. Given his view that residency can’t be a bargaining chip in talks with unions, Zerkle said residency should be required of all employees except those who currently live outside the city, not simply future hires.

“This is a critically important issue,” Zerkle said. “This is a citywide, self-preservation issue.”

McMenamin told the audience that the exodus of city workers from Springfield during the past dozen years constitutes a “reverse economic development program.” Thirty-five percent of city workers lived outside Springfield in 2011, McMenamin said, up 5 percent from 2009. Those workers earn about $35 million a year, he said.

“The problem is escalating, the problem is alarming,” McMenamin said.

Zerkle agreed, saying that no one expected that so many workers would choose to live outside Springfield when the residency requirement was lifted.

“If someone had said 35 percent…would move out in 10 years, people would have said ‘That’s ridiculous, it will never happen,’” Zerkle said. “Yet, here we sit.”

Given that the proposal up for a public vote would apply only to future employees, it would take as long as three decades before all city employees lived in Springfield, Zerkle said.

Not to worry, said Moore. The vast majority of city employees who don’t live in Springfield live in nearby so-called donut jurisdictions such as Jerome or Southern View that are bordered by the city, he said, and so the city is still enjoying proceeds from sales taxes. He and Burton agreed that the city shouldn’t decrease the hiring pool via a residency requirement.

“You can’t lower your standards just to have somebody living in the city,” Moore said.

McMenamin pointed out that a firefighter, who is not required to have a college degree, earns nearly $70,000 a year after three years on the job. With that kind of pay, plus benefits, the city shouldn’t have trouble attracting qualified employees  and demanding that they live in Springfield, he said.

The city is under no obligation to do anything regardless of what voters say in the non-binding referendum. The tea leaves are tough to read. The proposal initially failed to make the ballot when the city council voted 5-5 in August, only to revisit the issue one week later and vote 7-2, with Ward 8 Ald. Kris Theilien voting “present,” to ask voters what they think.

Stay tuned.  

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.
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