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Facing an uphill fight to preserve a requirement that police officers live in the city, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett is invoking Detroit -- perhaps America’s No. 1 symbol of urban decay.
Milwaukee is one of the nation’s last big cities with a residency rule, but Republicans in control of state government appear poised to change that. Gov. Scott Walker’s budget would free Milwaukee teachers of residency, and a GOP-backed bill would let Milwaukee police and firefighters live anywhere in the five-county area.
Barrett opposes both moves, arguing that city property values will decline because large numbers of middle-class employees will move to the suburbs. Proponents -- typically employee unions -- say workers should be able to live where they want to live.
The mayor quantified his concern in a Business Journal story in which he explicitly predicted Milwaukee could see a Detroit-style devastation of its tax base if residency rules are ended.
"Eleven years ago, the city of Detroit lifted the residency requirement for police officers and today, 53 percent of officers live outside of the city," said Barrett. "If we want the tax base of Milwaukee to resemble the tax base of Detroit, this is the way to go."
He added: "I don’t want the tax base of Milwaukee to be as decimated as the tax base in Detroit."
Did Detroit’s police force undergo such a radical geographical change? And how much of the blame for tax-base losses is traceable to dumping residency?
A bit of background first.
All Milwaukee city employees are currently required to live within the city limits, a rule that has been in place since 1930, according to the mayor's office. Chicago, another holdout for residency, apparently will stick with it based on comments by incoming Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
What about Detroit?
Mayor Dave Bing recently unveiled a program to help cops buy homes in the city -- an effort to reverse the migration that Bing says followed the 1999 scrapping of Detroit’s residency law by Michigan state lawmakers.
In his 2011 state of the city speech in February, Bing said approximately half of the Detroit force now lives outside the city’s confines.
We asked Bing’s office for backup, and spokesman Dan Lijana said the precise figure is 53 percent, and we confirmed that with the Detroit Police Department.
So on the numbers Barrett is right. And Detroit is not alone in seeing big numbers of employees leave.
St. Louis dropped its requirement in 2005 and 36 percent of those eligible to live elsewhere have so far chosen that route.
Barrett points to a 1994 city-commissioned study on teachers that predicted 60 percent would live outside the city without a residency requirement. The conclusion was based partly on other cities’ experiences. Marc Levine, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor who has studied urban out-migration, said he estimated 50 percent to 65 percent would leave over time.
Unions who back lifting the rules predict far less impact than city officials.
"I don’t think it will cause a mass exodus or the doom and gloom the mayor portrays," said Milwaukee Police Association President Michael Crivello.
But what about the assertion, implicit in Barrett’s remarks, that the loss of residency requirements leads to tax base losses? That’s part of the claim, too.
Academics, real estate officials and City Hall agree that sale prices could get pushed down, especially in pockets near the city’s edges where many city employees and teachers tend to live. They disagree on the extent of the reduction in values, and how widespread it would be.
Nailing down the extent of the cause and effect in other cities is difficult if not impossible. There is a dearth of useful research trying to parse out exactly how much impact residency has on a city’s tax base.
But there is strong anecdotal evidence that Detroit’s decades-long population and tax base decline was accelerated after the state dropped residency for city workers, said Patrick Anderson, a former Michigan budget official and expert on the economics of Michigan cities.
Anderson is CEO of Anderson Economic Group, which predicted negative effects from dropping residency, in a study commissioned by Detroit officials in 1999.
At the same time, Anderson said, you can’t blame most of Detroit’s woes on the residency change. And Milwaukee, he said, has avoided some of the disastrous political squabbling and decision-making that hurt Detroit.
Anderson notes Milwaukee has not taken the hits Detroit has -- and in fact its population has stabilized. That’s a point Barrett agrees with. The mayor attributes some of that to the residency rule, and says he wants to avoid action that tips the trend in the wrong direction.
Said Anderson: "Once a city starts to deteriorate in safety, public services, tax base and cost, no ordinance will keep people inside its fence."
It’s also worth noting that those cities that have dropped residency rules have taken different approaches.
Some have tried to limit a fast exodus -- and the potential hit on their tax base.
Philadelphia, for example, requires five years on the force before officers can live outside the city; St. Louis makes it seven.
The Milwaukee police bill does not put on any such restrictions.
Some observers, though, see an overreach in Barrett’s allusion to Detroit.
"That’s a worst-case scenario," said Marquette University economics professor David Clark. "When you look at Detroit, they have faced significant challenges that we have not faced. They were tied to one industry. We have a more diverse employment base. We don’t have the crime they have and haven’t seen entire neighborhoods empty out like they have."
So, the real estate market, the economy, crime and other quality of life factors can play into moving decisions -- and the impact on home values.
Let’s return home and to the question at hand.
Barrett notes that less than a decade after Detroit dropped residency, less than half its police force still lives in the city -- and in the same breath ties the change to the "decimated" state of Detroit’s tax base.
The statistic Barrett cited was confirmed by Detroit officials and has gone unchallenged.
Evaluating the implicit claim that ties the residency issue to tax base loss is more difficult. Experts agree there is at least some negative impact, but note there are many other factors at work.
We rate the mayor’s claim Mostly True.
Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, state of city address, Feb. 22, 2011
Interview with Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, March 16, 2011
Tom Barrett, remarks in Milwaukee Business Journal, March 11, 2011
2011 Senate Bill 30, text of proposed bill removing residency requirements for Milwaukee police and firefighters
Anderson Economic Group, Economic and Financial Impact, Change in Residency Requirements in the City of Detroit, Michigan, Nov. 1, 1999
Interview with Dan Lijana, communications manager, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, March 16, 2011
Interview with Milwaukee Police Association President Michael Crivello, March 16, 2011
Interview with Mike Ruzicka, president of the Greater Milwaukee Association of Realtors, March 17, 2011
Interview with Roy Scholtka, owner-broker of HomeSale Realty, March 17, 2011
E-mail interview with Erica Van Ross, spokesperson, Metropolitan Police Department, city of St. Louis, March 16, 2011
Interview with Lt. Ray Evers, communications, Philadelphia Police, March 16, 2011
Interview with Patrick Anderson, CEO, Anderson Economic Group, March 21, 2011
Interview with Eugene Blagmond, spokesman, Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police, March 16, 2011
E-mail interview with Marc Levine, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor of history and economic development, March 16, 2011
Interview with David Clark, Marquette University economic professor, March 16, 2011
Interview with Rich Roberts, spokesman, International Union of Police Associations, March 16, 2011
Philadelphia Police Department, Governance Study reviewing residency, June 1998
S.B. Friedman & Company, Impacts of Rescinding Teacher Residency Requirements, May 27, 1994
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