“Local” is all the rage in Vermont these days. Not so much, though, when it comes to Burlington city employees.
Most of the Queen City’s municipal workers reside and pay property taxes in some other locale. In the cases of the police and fire departments, close to 90 percent of their combined total of about 170 uniformed personnel live outside the city they serve, according to the respective chiefs. Two-thirds of Burlington’s 390-member public school teaching staff also commutes from homes in the suburbs, says District Superintendent Jeanne Collins.
The residency requirement in the city charter dictates that all local elected officials live in the municipality they serve: That includes Burlington’s mayor, city councilors and school commissioners.
The rule also covers a dozen mayor-appointed “department heads,” five of whom don’t currently live in Burlington: City Attorney Ken Schatz lives in South Burlington; Human Resources Director Susan Leonard calls Williston home; Fire Chief Michael O’Neil resides in Colchester; Planning Director David White is from Jericho; and school chief Collins sleeps in Shelburne.
All of the above qualify for one or both of the official exemptions for department heads and nonelected commissioners. A non-Burlington resident who worked for the city prior to being appointed to administer a department is entitled to remain where he or she is currently living. The same applies to an appointee who has children attending Vermont K-12 schools outside Burlington.
But while these five exempted department heads are complying with the city’s rules, they may not be in sync with the spirit that inspired the decades-old residency requirement in the first place. And as recently as 2006, Burlington voters resoundingly reaffirmed the principle of having key municipal officials live as well as work in the city. A proposal to rescind the residency requirement was defeated then by a roughly 2-1 margin.
Paul Decelles, the Ward 7 Republican who chairs the City Council’s Charter Change Committee, says he never votes to approve residency exemptions for prospective department heads who live outside Burlington. “The decisions they make affect all of us who live here,” Decelles explains. “They’re spending taxpayer money, so they should be paying city taxes. Plus, we’re paying some of these people $100,000, which is a helluva lot of money for Vermont. They should live here.”
Some Burlingtonians find it particularly galling that the planning director, who administers rules affecting city property owners, is not himself affected by those same rules. The same complaints are voiced in regard to Zoning Director Ken Lerner, who lives in Charlotte. Lerner’s post is not covered by the charter’s residency provision, but some Burlington residents say he ought to live with the rulings he makes.
Former City Attorney Joe McNeil says supporters of the charter’s residency requirement have long argued that it makes officeholders “more alert” to issues in the wards. “If they’re directly affected by what’s happening in the city, their service will be informed by that,” McNeil adds in setting forth the proponents’ perspective. Supporters of the requirement have also traditionally cited the need to respond quickly to after-hours emergencies, but that factor has been largely obviated by modern transportation and telecommunications, McNeil observes.
Opponents of the requirement argue that it drastically limits the pool of potential applicants for important city posts. They maintain there’s no compelling reason to insist that a Burlington department head live inside the city rather than, say, across the river in Winooski or in Colchester.
School Superintendent Collins says, for example, that she is “deeply enmeshed in the Burlington community” because she works 16 hours a day in the city. “Living in Shelburne, six miles away, means that’s where I sleep,” Collins declares.
The residency requirement in its current or potentially expanded form often draws opposition on the practical grounds that housing costs are comparatively high in Burlington. Both Collins and Police Chief Mike Schirling, a lifelong Burlington resident, suggest that’s the main reason why so many teachers and cops live in the suburbs.
Ward 1 Democrat Ed Adrian, a member of a City Council committee involved in neighborhood revitalization issues, has a different view: “Burlington actually has the most diverse housing market in price range of any place in Vermont — or certainly within Chittenden County.” Many homes in the Old and New North End are as affordable as those in parts of the Burlington suburbs, adds Joan Shannon, a realtor and Ward 5 city councilor who serves on the Charter Change Committee.
In fact, the most recent statistics posted by Hickock & Boardman Realty show 143 homes on the market in Burlington at an average price of $340,000, compared to 98 properties in Colchester listed on average at $399,000 and 132 homes in South Burlington with an average price of $392,000.
The prices may be deceiving, Shannon acknowledges: “You tend to get more house and more land for your money outside Burlington.”
Housing questions aside, views differ on whether Burlington would benefit from requiring not just department heads but at least some rank-and-file workers, such as teachers or police officers, to reside in the city.
Boston and Chicago both require city residency as a condition of employment in their police departments. Rutland used to have a similar provision, but it was repealed several years ago in favor of a requirement that full-time police department employees live within a 30-minute drive of the city. Brattleboro mandates that its police officers live in one of several specified towns.
Asked whether it would be positive for cops to live in areas they police, Burlington Chief Schirling says, “We do assign people to areas for an extended period of time so they become more integrated in those areas.” But conflicts of interest may well arise when a police officer lives locally, adds Schirling, who lives in Burlington’s New North End. “People ask me to get involved in neighborhood issues, which is actually the last thing we want officers to be doing.” There’s also the question: “How often do you want to run into people you’re dealing with when you’re on duty?”
Councilor Adrian counters, “There may be real advantages to having it known that a police officer lives on a particular block.”
Chicago has also long required that teachers in its public schools live in the city. Mayor Richard M. Daley argues for retaining the provision on the grounds that it encourages teachers to be more personally invested in the schools. He also warns that urban areas can deteriorate if city workers, with their middle-class salaries, are allowed to migrate to the suburbs.
Superintendent Collins suggests it may be advantageous that so many Burlington teachers live elsewhere. “It allows for a diversity of ideas,” she says. “Teachers experiencing other school systems can be beneficial to Burlington.”
Asked whether a teacher residency requirement would be consistent with the concept of neighborhood schools, Collins says she sees no connection. Her definition of a neighborhood school is simply that students can walk to it.
Whatever the merits of a police and teacher residency requirement, it’s unlikely to be adopted in Burlington anytime soon. Despite his frustration with carpetbagger department heads, Decelles says he has no intention of proposing anything along those lines to his fellow councilors.
Noting the difficulty of recruiting law-enforcement officers, Shannon adds, “We definitely do not want to put another obstacle into the hiring process for our police.”
For now, Burlington’s policy remains: Live and let live … wherever.