What’s next for public-sector employee residency requirements?

Summary: In 2013 City of Pittsburgh voters amended the home rule charter to mandate city residency for all employees.  Nearly a decade later, both police and fire employees have won arbitration rulings giving them the right to reside outside the city.

The City of Pittsburgh and its firefighters’ union recently settled a dispute that arose from a union grievance over the city requiring a firefighter to live within city limits.

The current collective-bargaining agreement was approved in 2019 and expires next year.  The union held that the only language that spoke to a residency requirement was for those seeking employment with the fire bureau, which required one year of city residency prior to application.  The city held that for more than a century those that were hired by the bureau had to maintain city residency and that the current agreement did not change that.

The matter went to binding arbitration. On Feb. 7, after failing to find “any evidence showing that a past practice of an in-City residency restriction had always been in place” the arbitrator ruled in the union’s favor and ordered the city “to cease and desist from imposing any residency restrictions contrary to the terms of the parties Collective Bargaining Agreement until provided for through the bargaining process contained in Act 111 [of 1968].”  

On March 9 the city filed a lawsuit appealing the decision.  At two points afterward the parties met to discuss the issue. Concluding that “the numbers of firefighter applicants have substantially reduced over the last decade and that the fire bureau would benefit from enlarging the pool of applicants in order to recruit more qualified and diverse firefighter candidates,” the parties crafted a memorandum of understanding in early May.

What does the memorandum entail?  First, it ended the city’s litigation.  Second, those applying for employment as a firefighter will not have to live in the city a year prior to applying but will be granted preference points on the application if they do (less than if the applicant were a military veteran or graduated from Pittsburgh Public Schools’ firefighter program).  

Third, employed firefighters will have to live within a designated area that is within one hour driving time to the City-County building. The area, shown on a map in the memorandum, extends over much of Southwest Pennsylvania.  Employees are not permitted to reside outside of the state.  In a sense, the city is still imposing a residency requirement, albeit a broader one.

Fourth, the memorandum becomes part of the collective-bargaining agreement.

The Allegheny Institute noted over 20 years ago (see Report 2001-06) that many reasons are given for having a public-sector employee residency requirement, including public safety personnel being quickly available in case of emergency, workers having a better understanding of the problems facing the community and workers paying the same taxes to fund their salaries.

When the Institute examined residency requirements in Allegheny County’s highest population municipalities outside of Pittsburgh (see Report 2014-03), there were several that mandated employees reside within a specified distance or travel time of the municipality. 

The city’s 2022 operating budget counts 667 uniformed firefighters and three civilian employees in the bureau.  That’s 21 percent of budgeted general fund employees and 0.2 percent of the city’s 2020 Census population of 302,971.

Whether current firefighter employees move out of Pittsburgh or if future firefighters opt not to reside in the city can only be determined with the passage of time.  Updated data on place of residence for Pittsburgh police may provide guidance on what might happen with firefighter residency. 

In 2017 the state Supreme Court heard an appeal of an arbitration award that allowed police officers to reside within 25 air miles of the City-County building.  The court set out to determine whether “a home rule municipality may amend its home rule charter to eliminate mandatory subjects of bargaining as defined by Act 111.”  The court ruled in favor of the police union.

When the decision was announced, the mayor at the time said “the majority of our officers want to live in the city…we would hope that that percentage will stay high.”  The head of the police union said “I don’t think it will create a mass exodus. But I think there will be a certain percentage, absolutely.”

An open records response noted, as of the March 25 pay date and paycheck register, there were 978 police officers working for the city.  Of these, 573 (59 percent) lived outside the city while 405 (41 percent) lived in the city. The employees living outside of Pittsburgh are paying taxes to another municipality (at a much lower earned-income tax rate) and possibly spending much of their disposable income outside the city as well. Those with children in public schools are undoubtedly in districts that are better-performing and with a lower per-pupil expenditure than Pittsburgh Public Schools.

If city policymakers hope to have employees choose to reside in the city, it is incumbent to make changes that would enhance quality of life factors that taxpayers look for.  That means following  through on recommendations the Institute made in late 2021 (see Policy Brief Vol. 21, No. 44), such as outsourcing non-core functions, looking for operating efficiencies and reversing the direction of the school district on spending and performance.  Those would go a long way to reducing spending and lowering city taxes and making the city an attractive place to live for workers who are no longer required to do so.

If at some point all fire and police personnel live outside Pittsburgh that would leave over 1,500 general fund employees in the city.  Allegheny County Council recently passed an ordinance that exempts 911 communications personnel from having to reside in Allegheny County. 

Will other residency requirements be expanded or possibly eliminated in the coming years?  What will the impact be, if any, on tax base, employee retention and service quality at the local government level?

Will Pittsburgh Police Head for the Exits?

Legislation has passed both houses of the General Assembly that would permit Pittsburgh Police officers to bargain over the issue of a City residency requirement as a condition of employment. The bill amends a 1951 act that said "a person applying for appointment shall not be required to be a resident of the city at the time of application…The person shall, however, be required to become a bona fide resident of the city at the time of employment and city residency must be maintained for the entire period of employment".

The new language, if it becomes law, would state "A city of the second class may require a police officer to become a bona fide resident of the city as a condition of employment". This opens the door to the residency requirement becoming a subject of collective bargaining. According to published reports Pittsburgh-the only city of the second class in Pennsylvania-is the only municipality to have a residency requirement for police codified in state law. That’s not to say that cities and towns don’t require police to live within their borders, just that it is bargained in negotiations.

It is a subject that has come up time and again, with strong opinions on both sides of the issue. Some feel that having police required to live in the municipality that employs them keeps them vested in the community while others feel police should be free to choose where they live and, if they have school age children, where they choose to send their children for educational purposes.

We wrote a report on residency requirements in 2001 which noted that as soon as the state erased residency requirements for teachers in Pittsburgh, the police union asked for the same. In recent years it was an issue in the 2007 mayoral election and the state attempted to change the requirement in 2010.

If the change becomes law, and the police win a removal of the requirement through contract negotiations, will other bargaining units follow suit? As of the most recent Civil Service Guide publication for the city (2010) the language for police appears as it does above, prior to the new amended language, and firefighters have to have been a City resident for at least one year prior to application for the job (established by state law) and non-uniformed employees have to establish City residency (governed by City ordinance).