OP-ED: Providence Home Rule Charter Needs an Old Rule Back

An argument for reestablishing residency requirements as the city charter is up for review

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Every 10 years, by statute, the City of Providence is required to review its city charter, a process that is presently underway in the City Council. Any agreed upon changes would then be placed on the ballot for voter approval this November. To our mind, it is long overdue to consider re-implementing the old Providence residency requirement for city employment with the goal of both saving money for the taxpayers and, more importantly, improving the functioning of our city.

The debate over residency requirements is almost as old as America. “Every matter, and thing, that relates to the city ought to be transacted therein and the persons to whose care they are committed [should be] Residents,” wrote George Washington in 1796. The dollars and complexity involved, of course, are now staggering, but nonetheless just as important.

Back in the years when Providence enforced residency requirements, city garbage trucks did double duty as snow plows. And whenever it snowed, Ward 1 (Fox Point) was always plowed first and best. It wasn’t because they started with Ward 1, followed by Ward 2, Ward 3, etc. It was because the drivers lived there, or more likely their mothers and grandmothers lived there!

Every neighborhood had laborers, police officers, firefighters, and schoolteachers who were integral active parts of their communities. Many were approachable and you actually knew their names and where they worked; they became mentors and role models.

Today, the City of Providence spends $565,000,000 on salaries and benefits, yet over 64 percent of all workers live outside of the city and 80 percent of the critical constituencies – police, firefighters, and teachers – live elsewhere! 

Which city workers do live here? Recreation department employees, crossing guards, substitute teachers, and paid members of various city boards who earn less than $25,000 annually, more than half of the labor union members, and the school clerical workers.

Potentially, a large portion of the $361 million that now leaves the city would be spent in Providence, not to mention the huge added fuel savings from city workers who drive home to MA and CT.

It has long been held that if people who work for the city live here, they’re vested. They understand the people and their needs because they are neighbors. Opponents say residency rules limit the pool of qualified candidates for certain positions – a number that we don’t believe could exceed 5 percent.  

If you are a Providence employee, you should believe in the city, and the whole purpose of residency requirements is to give public employees a real stake in the city. Adding incentives might be a good way to jumpstart residency.

The Home Rule Charter of 1981 required all city employees to live in Providence. This was even upheld by the Rhode Island Supreme Court. In 1990, residents voted to remove the requirement. Two years later, they brought it back, despite strong opposition from most of the city’s labor unions. The legislature subsequently banned residency altogether. For the record, the US Supreme Court affirmed the legality of residency requirements in 1976.

When residency requirements ended, the majority of public employees who moved out of the city were police officers, firefighters, and teachers, and their departure has decimated many neighborhoods. 

It’s time to bring back residency, and there are some immediate and simple rules that can be implemented. Let’s start with thenobvious. All department directors, the Mayor and City Council staff, all Board or Commission members, all promotions in public safety, and all new hires must be Providence residents. The fact that there are non-city residents on city boards and commissions is inexcusable and outrageous.

Such a rule would force top officials and leadership to tangibly demonstrate their commitment to Providence. It would put them in contact with the people they serve in their neighborhoods, at the grocery store, at their kids’ school. Most importantly, it would make sure they experience first-hand how well or poorly city agencies serve the public. If top supervisors don’t get a response to vandalism or their trash doesn’t get picked up or they call 911 and get put on hold, you can bet somebody’s going to have to answer for it.

When Boston implemented residency in 1976, 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, businesses opened in these same residential neighborhoods, and Boston’s tax revenues increased. Other cities, some large (New York, Philadelphia), some medium (Buffalo, Boulder) require residency  well.

This would help all of Providence in so many ways. What needs to happen, we suggest, is that the city seek out employees at all levels who believe that working for the city is not just choosing a job, but also making a lifestyle decision – and in our mind, a damn good one!

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