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Residency Rules Stir Up Controversy at Greendale Budget Hearing

City officials and ‘Cops for Walker’ butt heads

Apr. 10, 2013
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Among the most heated exchanges in the eight hours of public testimony on Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed state budget last Thursday was over the item removing residency requirements for public employees statewide.

Tempers flared both within and outside the auditorium of Greendale High School, the site of the only official public hearing on Walker’s budget in southeastern Wisconsin.

As three Milwaukee Common Council members testified before the state Joint Finance Committee (JFC) in support of the 75-year-old residency requirement, roughly a dozen police officers lined the back of the auditorium, some wearing “Cops for Walker” T-shirts.

The cops followed the aldermen—Common Council President Willie Hines, Ald. Nik Kovac and Ald. Michael Murphy—out of the auditorium and into the lobby, where angry cops had a heated exchange with Kovac.


Kovac: Residency Is Worth $7 Million to the City

In his testimony, Kovac argued that the residency issue is a matter for collective bargaining, one that had come up during contract negotiations with the Milwaukee Police Supervisors’ Organization a few years ago.

In 2010, police supervisors had offered to give up 2% of their salary—about $1,500 annually for a sergeant—if they could live within 25 miles of the city.

Yet arbitrator Herman Torosian found that the union had failed to establish a “compelling reason” for exempting police supervisors from the citywide residency requirement.

The supervisors—as well as all other public employees—have stayed put, although Walker and legislative Republicans have attempted to strike down residency requirements in Milwaukee and throughout the state.

Kovac argued last Thursday that if the supervisors’ 2% buyout were applied to all 7,000 city employees, the residency rule would be worth $7 million to Milwaukee.

“You’re going to hear from a lot of police and firefighters who want residency to end,” Kovac told the JFC members. “They want it to end, but like everything else in this world they should pay for it. And if they pay for it, taxpayers will benefit.”

Kovac said that Walker and his fellow Republicans in the majority should support taxpayers on residency.

“I do not understand how this government in Madison can look taxpayers in the eye and support giving something away for free,” Kovac said.

In the lobby after his testimony, Kovac and the “Cops for Walker” exchanged sharp words about whether the police supervisors had tried to negotiate residency for a 2% buyout back in 2010, with the cops seeming stunned and surprised by the news.


Murphy: It’s Payback

Kovac wasn’t the only public official testifying in opposition to Walker’s plan to end residency requirements.

Council President Hines reminded the JFC that it had removed the item eliminating residency requirements for teachers from Walker’s first budget because it did not affect the state’s finances.

He said the residency rule had no negative impact on the city’s ability to hire or retain quality employees, noting that the city received 5,743 applications for firefighter and 3,691 for police officer in its most recent recruitment period. Only two sworn firefighters and 12 sworn police officers voluntarily left their positions last year.

Hines said the state should respect the city’s home rule authority, as set out in the state constitution, and let the city determine its own employment rules.

“Please consider that [this budget item] is truly big government, and that it unduly interferes with local governance, and threatens to destabilize Milwaukee and its future as the key economic engine for the entire state,” Hines said.

Ald. Murphy stressed the fiscal impact of the measure. Walker’s controversial collective bargaining bill, Act 10, exempted police and firefighters from having to contribute more to their health care and pension benefits. Police and firefighters make up 40% of the city’s workforce but 60% of its budget, and the mayor and Common Council are unable to use Walker’s Act 10 “tools” to bring down costs for the city. Murphy argued that all public employees should be treated the same, without preferential treatment given to fire and police personnel.

“Give us the true tools to make a difference,” Murphy said. “And at the same time, don’t gut us by taking out residency.”

He warned that allowing city employees to live elsewhere would have a negative impact on the city’s tax base and property values, which have declined during the recession.

“[Residency] should never be in this budget,” Murphy said. “It has nothing to do with creating a single job. It only has to do, unfortunately, with payback. We find it very unfair.”

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and Greendale Village President John Hermes also spoke out against eliminating the residency rule.

Currently, Greendale requires its employees to live within 15 miles of the village, which Hermes said was critical to having a quick response time in emergencies.


Cops Want Out

Fire and police union representatives and the anti-residency police officers spoke in support of Walker’s budget.

Officer Glen Podlesnik, a 21-year veteran of the Milwaukee Police Department who served as a marine in the gulf war, said abolishing the residency rule was vital to his freedom. He said that when he signed his contract two decades ago to work as an MPD officer and agreed to adhere to the residency rule, he had faith in the Milwaukee Public Schools. Now, however, he doesn’t support MPS and sends his kids to two different schools districts through the open enrollment program.

“An employer shouldn’t have the right to tell me where I live,” Podlesnik testified.

Mike Crivello, head of the Milwaukee Police Association, said the arguments against eliminating residency rules were unfounded.

“Forcing officers to live within a specific boundary does not honor their sacrifice,” Crivello told the JFC. “Mass exodus, decreased revenues and home values, crime concerns—all unsubstantiated rhetoric, nothing more than scare tactics, absolutely unfounded.”

Democratic members of the JFC have announced they will hold public hearings on the budget around the state in addition to the four set up by Republican leadership. The Milwaukee meeting will be held 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, April 20, at the MPS Administration Building, 5225 W. Vliet St. The Racine hearing will be held from 4 to 7 p.m. at Gateway Technical College, Great Lakes Room, on Monday, April 15.


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