The Pros and Cons of Residency Requirements for City Workers [OPINION]
The first time I read into the issue of municipal workers required to live within the city lines in which they work was when Boston's new mayor Thomas Menino enacted the policy in that city in 1994.
"If you collect a check from the City of Boston, you live in Boston," Menino stated as his policy rolled out and, guess what? It worked like a charm. Blighted neighborhoods were filled with Boston city cops, firefighters, teachers, public works, water department, and other municipal employees.
In a matter of a few years, crime went down, property values went up and businesses opened in these same residential neighborhoods. Boston's tax revenues increased. Tough to argue that it wasn't a good plan and policy – for Boston.
New Bedford is not Boston and requires a different gameplan for different reasons, but would this policy work? Residency is a requirement here in ink on a legally binding document but has been enforced about as strictly as a leash law for cats.
I've been a SouthCoast guy for 22 years now. I have seen and paid attention to three very competent New Bedford mayors in their own rights during that time.
Many of the same problems persist though, despite an administrative capability or change. The same neighborhoods that were problematic then are still problematic now in February of 2020.
Why? The city is always facing about the highest regional unemployment, underemployment, overly subsidized populations and a seemingly endless inventory of low-income, affordable housing to host them.
We have in New Bedford what I call a "down-and-out" industry. Hey, I'm not judging, I'm observing. People have found a lucrative niche in providing services to the needy. One of New Bedford's most noticeable growth industries seems to be the not-for-profit groups.
Perhaps a more subtle but strong income generator here is the affordable housing property owner. One of the most dependable tenants one can have is the one who has their rent paid by the taxpayer.
President Reagan once said, "If America falls, there is nowhere else on earth to go to to escape tyranny. We will be the last to succumb to it."
I think New Bedford is of the same thought, but for those who are seeking refuge as someone who was forced out of Boston (for example) due to gentrification. The properties within the towns surrounding New Bedford offer lower tax rates, lower crime rates, and a better education environment for students. But the homes in these towns come at higher prices, mostly unattainable for the unemployed or underemployed among New Bedford's residents.
If New Bedford cannot offer low income, subsidized homes to as many applicants that apply, in a speedy process to house them, there is nowhere else for many miles near Massachusetts that such residents should expect to be able to go.
New Bedford is built to succeed in its oddly crafted skill set for a down and out economy, for down and out people with economic and/or social problems that most municipalities cannot cope with or wish to cope with.
A common denominator in these time-tested problems that I can see is the real but capricious and mostly ignored residency requirements for city workers.
The consistent negotiation to work in New Bedford by sought-after department heads, coveted talent or many rank-and-file city workers is that they want a waiver from having to live in the city.
It is not an opinion, it is a fact that this is a validation that next-to-nobody thinks New Bedford is a good place to live or to raise a family – or just to wake up every day inside the city limits.
I'm not saying that they are right. I'm saying they almost all believe this and it is a problem which is likely to be a key component to the persistent urban problems of the Whaling City.
City Council President Joe Lopes is formulating a residency requirement committee to study the issue and to better vet the votes on a case-by-case basis for the waivers.
I called him up and asked Lopes about his reasons for putting the committee together.
"I thought it was time to see if we could get some sort of consistency in the way we address this issue," he said. "There are councilors who believe strongly in residency requirements and there are those who don't see the need. It's important to find some common ground."
He added, "Mayor Mitchell's negotiations with the police and fire unions include leaving behind a situation that he very likely won't have to face 10 years from now."
Ken Pittman is the host of The Ken Pittman Show on 1420 WBSM New Bedford. He can be heard Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon. Contact him at ken.pittman@