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Scott MacKay Commentary: Time For Providence To Bring Back Residency for City Workers?

Published
Once again, a Providence mayor is ensnarled in a bitter battle with a city employee union, in this case, the firefighters. RIPR political analyst Scott...

Once again, a Providence mayor is ensnarled in a bitter battle with a city employee union, in this case, the firefighters. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay wonders if the capital city should go back to the future with city workers.

Hardly day passes without another twist in the tortuous labor dispute between Mayor Jorge Elorza and the union representing city firefighters. As is the case with most union-management jousts in, this one is about money.

The details of this battle have become what we in the news business call a MEGO story, as in My Eyes Glaze Over. It’s basically about the mayor’s plan to save $5 million or so in overtime pay by radically changing the hours worked by those who fight fires and drive the rescue ambulances.

After months of failed negotiations, the dispute has landed in the courts. The union has won the first round, but there will be appeals. As is usually the case, the only folks making money off all of his are the lawyers.

In an era of tight city finances, these union-management impasses have become all too familiar. Since the 1980s, it seems like every mayor, except for union-friendly Buddy Cianci, have battled one city union or another. Mayors Joe Paolino and David Cicilline provoked widespread protests from the firefighters. Mayor Angel Taveras fired all the teachers. He later acknowledged that was a mistake.

Providence mayors and City Council members are in a no-win situation. They are caught between property and car owners who grouse about high taxes. And by city workers seeking good wages and benefits.

This had led to taxpayer resentment of city workers. Especially at a time when many in private industry no longer get the health care and pension benefits of public employees. The taxes that pay for those benefits are widely viewed as a roadblock to economic development.

City workers were once required to live in Providence. But city unions and the General Assembly chipped away at the residency requirement. The Assembly lifted it for police officers and firefighters and a decade ago on Smith Hill abolished it for all.

At the time, cities and towns that did not have residency rules thought it wrong that a Providence resident could hold a public job in their communities, but that their constituents could not be a Providence cop, teacher or firefighter. The late Rep. Paul Crowley of Newport, an education advocate, said bluntly that it was unfair that a qualified Newport resident was barred from teaching in Providence.

Now might be a good time to bring back residency for newly hired city workers. This could have several virtues. It was through residency that the sons and daughters of the Irish-American and Italian-American immigrants who forged the 20th century Providence climbed into the middle-class. Once the capital city evolved into a place dominated by African-American, Asian-American and Latino groups, the residency ladder was pulled up.

The result: Providence police, schools and firefighters do not reflect the 21st Century population. The most glaring example is the school department, where more than 90 percent of students are non-white, but about 80 percent of teachers are white. So are roughly two-thirds percent of police officers.

When most public safety and school employees live outside the city, it leads residents to question their commitment. Some Providence citizens conclude, perhaps unfairly, that the teachers don’t want to send their children to the schools they teach in and the cops and firefighters don’t want to live in the neighborhoods in which they provide public safety.

A taxpayer would be less inclined to resent a city worker if he or she lived across the street. The same goes for the cop who is your son’s Little League coach or daughter’s Girl Scout Troop leader.

City workers earn decent salaries and benefits. They aren’t getting rich, but they have steady jobs and can afford a solid middle-class life. These are kind of folks who provide anchors to urban neighborhoods.

Residency wouldn’t change things overnight. It would take many years to build a workforce based on Providence residents. And younger workers at the bottom of the income scale  would likely need some help buying homes in the city. State agencies, notably Rhode Island Housing, could help with this.

A byproduct of residency: It would mean that city workers are paying city taxes, so they, too, would understand the impact of high property levies.

This we know: No system is perfect. But it seems like what Providence has isn’t working. So why not commission a serious City Hall study of bringing back the residency rules?

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:40 and 8:40 and on All Things Considered at 5:44. You can also follow his political analysis and reporting at our `On Politics’ Blog at RIPR.org

Providence City Hall
Providence City Hall