A rule requiring city employees to live in New Haven is still a long way from becoming a reality, but it moved an inch closer Thursday night.
Because of a 1989 change in state law, the city is not allowed to bargain with its employees about where they reside. Ward 30 Alderman Darnell Goldson said that change has contributed to a gutting of New Haven’s middle class population, with about 63 percent of city employees living outside the city. At a meeting of the Legislation Committee of the Board of Aldermen, all but one alderman, Michael Jones ’11 of Ward 1, voted to recommend to the full board a resolution submitted by Goldson urging lawmakers in Hartford to lift the prohibition on residency requirements.
Mayor John DeStefano Jr. has thrown his support behind the resolution, arguing in an interview in January that cities should have the right to condition employment on residency if they decide to do so.
Goldson submitted a second resolution to the committee calling for a ballot referendum to be held in November on the issue. By a vote of five to one, the resolution failed.
Ward 29 Alderman and Board President Carl Goldfield, who testified in favor of Goldson’s first resolution, said he was opposed to such a referendum because it would likely be marked by very low turnout and a concerted public opposition effort by union workers who live outside the city.
“Our city employees are going back to Hamden and West Haven and Madison, buying homes and paying taxes, and we’re losing out on that income,” Goldson said.
City unions have made it clear that they will resist the effort to lift the state ban on residency requirements.
Testifying before the Legislation Committee Thursday night, Matthew Brokman, a spokesman for Council 4 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), said residency requirements place an unfair burden on public employees. While he said he agrees with the goal of strengthening the city’s middle class, he said there are better ways to do that, such as increasing the living wage, pushing for universal health care and enacting more progressive taxation.
“Rather than pitting us against each other, the city should try to provide incentives for employees to live in the city,” Brokman said.
Jones, who cast the only vote against the resolution at the meeting, said he believes the current tensions between the city and its unions over concessions make it a bad time to discuss a potential residency requirement. He added that the resolution would hurt the productivity of conversations with unions about their contracts.
In the past few months, DeStefano has spoken publicly about the need for city unions to make concessions on their benefits to address the city’s budget gap. Earlier on Thursday, DeStefano announced 82 layoffs, including of teachers and police officers.
In an interview with the News in January, Goldfield said he would be shocked if the state legislature were to lift the ban on residency requirements. But even if it does, it remains unclear what the city would do.
Ward 5 Alderman and chairman of the Legislation Committee Jorge Perez said he voted in favor of Goldson’s resolution because he believes the city should have the right to decide whether to enact a residency requirement. If it were up to him, however, the city would offer incentives to employees who are New Haven residents rather than resort to a blanket requirement. Perez offered ideas like tax incentives or a homebuyer program that would make it easier and more attractive for employees to move to New Haven.
Newly elected Ward 9 Alderman Matt Smith ’98 agreed. While he believes the city should not restrict unilaterally where employees can and cannot live, he would like to see the city have more discretion in encouraging residency.
“Urban living isn’t for everyone,” Smith said.
AN ETHICAL ISSUE
With only 37 percent of city employees living in the city, Goldfield said many aldermen who are new to the board, including himself when he was first elected, are amazed to dicover that the state forbids the city to require employees to live in the city.
In an interview in January, Goldfield said he sees an ethical issue in the debate over a potential residency requirement.
“I just don’t see how as a police officer you can come in to police the city, and then go back to the suburbs at the end of the day where there are no problems and wash your hands clean,” Goldfield said.
City employees are also more invested in their work when they live in the city, said Honda Smith, who co-chairs the Democratic Ward Committee of Goldson’s ward.
“We have people coming to and leaving New Haven with their brown bags, and they don’t shop here, they don’t spend money here,” Smith said. “When you live here, you care more.”
But Elaine Braffman, a neighborhood specialist with the city’s Livable City Initiative and vice president of AFSCME affiliate Local 3144, said she knows many city employees who do not live in New Haven but are still invested in their work.
“They give it their all and are just as committed as those who do live here,” Braffman said.
Brokman said many employees who live outside New Haven consider the city more their home than the towns in which they live.
If Goldson has his way, New Haven will include the residency requirement question on ballots in November. Ideally, he said, a democratic vote would spark similar referendums in cities across the state, creating further pressure on state legislators.
While the proposal for a referendum will still be reviewed by the full Board of Aldermen, members of the Legislation Committee expressed concerns about how such a vote would play out.
Goldfield and Smith said a referendum would likely be highly politicized and influenced by labor unions and non-city residents.
“There were a lot of external forces at work in California during the Proposition 8 debate,” Smith said, referring to the ballot initiative that succeeded in banning same-sex marriage in that state in 2008. “The majority could get it wrong again.”
Goldfield argued further that the issue should be decided by the city’s system of representative democracy, in which aldermen speak for those who elected them.
“It’s our job to know what our constituents want,” Goldfield said.
Both the resolution urging state legislators to lift the state ban and the resolution calling for a referendum will reach the full Board of Aldermen at its next meeting on Tuesday. A final vote on both could come as early as Mar. 7.