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Milwaukee's Residency Rule Goes Before Wisconsin Supreme Court

Thomas Hawk, flickr
View of Milwaukee

On Wednesday, the Wisconsin Supreme Court listened to arguments about residency rules, and the outcome will determine whether Milwaukee police officers, fire fighters and other city employees can move outside the city limits.

For more than 75 years, Milwaukee required its workers to live here, but in 2013, the Legislature outlawed residency rules. Since then, each side has won a legal battle, and now the issue is before the court of last resort.

In 2013, Representative John Nygren said the issue is simple - municipalities should not have the power to tell the people they hire where to live.

"To say that we’re going to require people, based on their job, to be sentenced to live in a certain area…that’s just not fair. They should be able to make that choice," Nygren testified.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett has continued to disagree.

“These are jobs that are good, middle class jobs. They’re significantly higher than the average income for people who live in the city of Milwaukee, and so we want our public workers to be taxpayers, as well, and help pay for their own salaries, ironically,” Barrett says.

A study the city commissionedfound that if its workers were allowed to leave, many would – around sixty percent. In the two years after the Legislature outlawed residency rules, nearly 800 Milwaukee workers moved out of the city. They did so despite warnings from city leaders that they would fight for the right to impose residency.

The city lost the first round, but prevailed in state appeals court. The mayor is confident the high court will agree with an amendment the state approved decades ago.

“It’s not even a close case, because that Home Rule Amendment said local decision-makers are the ones that make the local decisions. This is such a clear cut case of 75 years of uninterrupted local decision-making, and then the state comes in and says no,” Barrett says.

The Milwaukee police and fire fighters unions have been fighting residency restrictions. The unions have not responded to our requests for comment, but the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty agrees with their cause. WILL has filed an Amicus brief on the unions’ behalf.  WILL President Rick Esenberg insists home rule does not apply if the state law affects all municipalities and involves a matter of statewide concern.

"The state has a right to protect the freedom of its citizens to live where they want, and to insure cities do not turn themselves into little fortresses walled off from the rest of the state, and to protect the ability of people to move across municipal boundaries," Esenberg says.

UW-Milwaukee Political Science Professor Mordecai Lee says generally local governments in Wisconsin can only do what the state lets them.

"But the City of Milwaukee, in going to court, has tried to rely on an interpretation of one relatively obscure section of the state constitution which appears to give some, I’d guess you’d call them sovereign powers, to local levels of government, as opposed to delegated powers from the state Legislature,” Lee says.

Whatever the state's high court decides will be the final call.

Under the bill the Legislature approved, municipal emergency workers must live within 15 miles of their jobs.

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