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COLUMN

If your job depends on taxes, should you also pay those taxes?

Change in residency rule for city workers could have drawbacks, but also benefits

Thursday, December 12, 2013 - 8:10 am

About 90 percent of Allen County government's 1,500 employees live in the county, generating nearly $763,000 in local income taxes. That means the 155 people who live elsewhere aren't paying nearly $78,000 in income taxes to the county for which they are paid with tax dollars to work. The residential property taxes they aren't paying locally amounts to even more.

So some will no doubt react skeptically to the proposed elimination of a law intended to prevent a similar situation within city government. And they are right to be cautious, because there is a good case to be made for the public-employee residency requirements that have fallen into and out of favor since the late 1800s. But the administration of Mayor Tom Henry also makes a compelling case for its proposal to allow city workers to live in Indiana counties contiguous to Allen, and deserves a fair hearing before City Council votes as soon as next week.

“We've probably made offers to 10 to 15 people who said, 'OK, but we can't move (into Allen County). We're a technical organization, and we need people with special skills,” said City Utilities Director Kumar Menon, expressing what seems to be the city's chief rationale for ending its current policy, which requires employees to move into Allen County within six months of their hire.

As any employer knows, the ability to attract and keep good workers is critical. That is especially true in fields requiring hard-to-find skills. So when Menon says the city has been forced to pay contractors to provide engineering services at its waste treatment plant because it can't find someone to fill the job, it pays to listen.

But hasn't the city been spending millions to make itself more attractive to would be residents? Yes, but Menon said a new ballpark, restaurants and other amenities can't overcome family considerations that make a move difficult if not impossible: the need to care for an ailing parent, the desire to keep children in school, the employment needs of a spouse.

If the city can't land top-notch workers, or if it must pay contractors a premium, the loss of tax revenue that would come with a lack of local residency could be offset by the increase in talent and efficiency, it might not be a bad trade. Especially when, as Menon noted, those employees will be buying things (and paying sales tax) locally and might eventually move here should their family considerations change.

The city's public-safety employees, in fact, are already allowed to live in contiguous counties. They alone are allowed to take city vehicles out of the county, and the new ordinance would not change that. But Menon said few non-safety employees have city vehicles anyway.

According to Governing magazine, residency rules were originally used by city political bosses to limit jobs to their friends and supporters. The progressive movement of the early 1900s eliminated some of them, but the regulations made a comeback in the 1960s and 1970s as some cities were looking to boost their economies and provide opportunities to the poor and minorities. By the mid-1990s, the rules were falling out of favor again as the middle class continued its migration to the suburbs. Even today, Menon said, governments are eliminating residency rules.

The results have been mixed, Governing reports. More than half of Detroit police officers live outside the bankrupt city, but it is not clear whether any of that was a result of the Michigan Legislature's 1999 ban on city residency rules. In 2009, the Ohio Supreme Court upheld that state's ban on residency rules, and Cleveland feared an exodus. But spokeswoman Maureen Harper said “I think that, for the most part, city employees . . . . found it valuable to live and work in the same place, to live in the community in which they serve.”

That sense of community, in other words, can benefit employer and employee alike. When I worked as a reporter in Valparaiso for two years after graduation, I came back to Fort Wayne almost every weekend – more like a homesick college student than a professional journalist paid to know what was happening where I worked and lived.

That kind of connectedness is more important in some jobs than others, however, which might be why Councilman Tom Smith, R-1st, seems open to the change. “It's a want, not a need. But if the mayor thinks it's the best thing, I won't second-guess him,” Smith said.

Neither will I, but city officials might want to think twice the next time they try to justify annexation by arguing that people who live just outside Fort Wayne should pay city taxes because they benefit from city roads, businesses and other opportunities.

The same, after all, could be said for city employees.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.