Residency rule: A taxing issue

01/15/2008

More than half of Erie's firefighters and police officers live outside city limits. Here's why.

Article published Jan 13, 2008

More than half of Erie's firefighters and police officers live outside city limits. Here's why.

By Kara Rhodes
kara.rhodes@timesnews.com
and CODY SWITZER
cody.switzer@timesnews.com

Guy Santone spends his days investigating fires in the city of Erie.

In the evenings, he drives southeast, past block after block of city houses and into rural Greene Township, where he has lived for a decade. He moved there from the city.

"My wife and I wanted to build a home, and I always wanted to live in a place where I had some property," said Santone, the chief fire inspector for the Erie Bureau of Fire. "This property came up and I bought it and we built the house. I wanted a little bit more land than what the city gave me."

Santone and other city employees didn't always have the choice to move outside Erie—where land is typically more abundant and taxes typically lower.

When the 55-year-old Santone was hired 20 years ago, Erie firefighters, police officers and other City Hall employees were required to live within the boundaries of the city that provided them a paycheck.

Those requirements weakened—starting with an arbitrator's award for the Erie Fraternal Order of Police in 1989, and ending with a change to a state Civil Service Commission rule in 2003. All city of Erie employees now are only required to live within a 15-mile radius—as the crow flies—of City Hall, 626 State St.

Today, more than half of Erie's firefighters and police officers live outside the boundaries of the city they serve and protect. An Erie Times-News analysis of property records showed that 51 percent—or 165—of the city's 324 firefighters and police officers live outside the city limits.

Of that total, 61 percent of police officers—or 105—live outside the city. And 39 percent of firefighters—or 60—live outside the city.

While the residency rules for city of Erie employees are settled, the debate over the rules is not. Concern over residency has come up in the city's past labor negotiations with police officers and firefighters, though the issue has been absent from the city's current talks with the firefighters'union.

And other cities in Pennsylvania, including Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, have more stringent residency requirements, with Harrisburg likely to revisit its rules soon.

For some Erie firefighters and police officers, choosing to live outside the city is a matter of having more options—about schools, about personal safety, even about how to best care for an ailing family member. The police officers and firefighters also said the ability to choose where they live is their right.

Those who advocate strict residency requirements for police officers and firefighters believe such rules are beneficial. They said requiring police officers and firefighters to live in the city where they work gives the public-safety workers a greater connection to their community.

Advocates of residency requirements also said the rules allow police officers and firefighters to return to work faster in emergencies and—perhaps most significantly—keep them a part of the tax base that provides their pay.

"It's right that they should live in the city," said Alan Kugler, director of PA Futures, a statewide civic and governmental affairs consulting organization based in Erie. "If they live outside the city, hopefully that's a hard decision for them to make."

Erie firefighter Dave Chiaramonte, president of the firefighters'union, International Association of Fire Fighters Local 293, recalled a conversation he had with city officials in 2004. He said the officials said firefighters who live outside the city were expecting city residents to pay their salaries and benefits.

"They were pointing the finger at us about residency," said Chiaramonte, 43, who lives in Summit Township. "But none of them lived in the city, either."

Tax implications

The city has nearly 300 white- and blue-collar workers who are not police officers or firefighters. The city's human resources manager, Connie Cook, said she could not estimate how many of those workers reside outside the city limits.

The Erie Times-News focused its analysis on police officers and firefighters because their residency has come up most intensely in labor negotiations. Police officers and firefighters are the city's two largest departments, earn among the highest salaries and benefits of city workers, and account for by far the biggest share of the city's labor costs.

The starting salary for an Erie police officer is $30,334, and the highest salary—other than for the chief—is $59,516. Most Erie police patrol officers earn $50,557 a year, according to City Hall.

For Erie firefighters, the starting salary is $30,431. The highest salary—other than for the chief—is $65,867. Most Erie firefighters earn a salary of $50,183 a year, according to City Hall.

Living outside the city of Erie brings tax benefits, the Erie Times-News analysis found. Those who leave the city escape its high millage rates for the real-estate taxes that fund city government and the Erie School District.

Erie firefighters and police officers who live outside the city frequently live in houses with higher assessed values than their counterparts who live in the city.

The more expensive homes often mean that the real-estate tax bills of Erie firefighters and police officers living outside the city are higher. But the police officers and firefighters who live outside the city also pay a smaller percentage of their total property value in taxes because of lower millage rates in outlying municipalities, such as Millcreek and Harborcreek townships.

According to the Erie Times-News analysis, which included a review of Erie County assessment records:

  • The average assessed property value for houses of Erie firefighters and police officers living in the city is $70,580.67, which means they pay an average of $2,362.24 in property taxes each year. That includes Erie County government taxes, for which the millage is constant across the county.
  • The average assessed property value for houses of Erie firefighters and police officers living outside the city is $122,688.48. They pay an average of $2,676.79 in property taxes.
  • If the police officers and firefighters living outside the city had to pay taxes at the city's millage rate, they would pay an average of $1,496.38 more each year, based on the current assessed values of their properties.
  • Erie police officers and firefighters who live outside the city own properties worth, on average, more than $50,000 more than the properties owned by their co-workers who live in the city, based on assessed values.
  • But Erie police officers and firefighters who live outside the city pay, on average, only about $314 more in taxes each year compared with their counterparts who live in the city.
"The same opportunity"

City officials are unsure how long the city required its employees to live within the city limits. But the officials were clear on one point—the requirement started to crumble in the 1980s.

In 1981, then-Mayor Louis J. Tullio went to court to oppose letting city employees reside outside the city. The courts ruled in the city's favor.

The city didn't fare as well in December 1988. A labor arbitrator ruled that city police officers did not have to reside in the city and could live within a 15-mile radius of City Hall.

Less than a year later, City Council voted to give all city employees the option of living outside the city, within the 15-mile radius.

Only Erie firefighters were required to live in the city when they were hired. They could move outside the city after working as a firefighter for a year. The requirement grew out of a state Civil Service Commission rule that affected all Pennsylvania third-class cities, or cities with fewer than 250,000 residents.

The Civil Service Commission dropped the rule in 2003.

Former Erie police Sgt. Ted Marnen was the president of the Erie Fraternal Order of Police when the union argued in 1988 to remove the residency requirement and replace it with the 15-mile-radius rule.

The union argued the residency requirement forced officers to expose their families to harassment from people they had arrested.

The union also said the 15-mile radius represented a reasonable distance—far enough from the city to address personal-safety concerns, but close enough to allow police officers to get to the city quickly.

"It was especially a problem with officers with kids in school who were going to school with the kids of the guy the officer had arrested the night before," said Marnen, 59, who retired in 2000 and now heads security at Gannon University. "Erie really isn't that big of a town."

However, Marnen said, the top reason for wanting to get rid of the residency requirement was so that officers could live in the type of house and neighborhood of their choice.

"Police and firefighters just wanted the same thing as everyone else, they wanted the same opportunity," Marnen said. "They wanted to be able to live where they wanted. Taxes were a factor, and schools."

The Erie Times-News analysis showed that not one of the city's 324 firefighters and police officers lives outside the 15 miles.

Harrisburg's experience

Harrisburg, a third-class city like Erie, negotiated a contract with its FOP six years ago that required new hires to live within the city limits.

The Harrisburg FOP's lawyer, Sean Welby, said he regrets agreeing to the requirement.

"They offered us everything under the sun to put it in, and like an idiot, I agreed," Welby said.

He said he led efforts to get the state Senate to pass a bill in 2006 to outlaw residency requirements. The bill died without going to the floor.

Welby blamed the legislation's failure on officials from Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, the only two cities in the state that have automatic residency requirements for city employees that don't have to be negotiated. All other cities and municipalities must negotiate residency requirements with the unions for police officers and firefighters, Welby said.

Welby said he understands the value of having a one- or two-year residency requirement for a first-time hire.

"You develop a connection to a city you don't get if you don't live there," he said. "I can't really argue with that. I would encourage some kind of compromise to be made.

"The way I view it is, if I don't have to worry about a spouse or children, like most young officers, then I don't have a real good argument to say I don't want to live in a place I police."

Welby said he hopes to negotiate the residency requirement out of the next FOP contract for the Harrisburg police.

The city will be reluctant to give it up, said Matt Coulter, assistant to Harrisburg Mayor Stephen R. Reed.

All Harrisburg city employees, including police officers and firefighters, must obtain a residence within the city limits after being hired, though Harrisburg's regulations feature different provisions for employees of different departments.

Coulter said the city fought to have the residency rules reinstated partly in an effort to increase the city's tax base.

"It keeps taxes for city employees within the city," Coulter wrote in an e-mail. "If an employee doesn't live within the city, it creates a circumstance whereby city tax dollars, being paid to the employee, are literally supporting the tax base of competing suburban municipalities. This, in short, creates no economic benefit to the city itself."

Coulter also said the residency requirement helps boost the city's image.

"It is difficult to promote living, working and visiting the city if a majority of its employees do not even live here," Coulter said.

Mayor Sinnott's view

Erie Mayor Joe Sinnott said the 15-mile-radius rule has not been a factor in the current negotiations with Fire Fighters Local 293—talks that have been markedly less contentious than those of previous years, with city and union representatives talking about possibly reaching a deal without going to binding arbitration.

Sinnott said, however, that he doesn't see the logic of having the 15-mile-radius rule for workers who are not emergency personnel.

"If you live outside the city, you live outside the city," he said. "I can see where response time would be an issue for emergency workers, but what's the difference otherwise?"

It appears in documents detailing the changes in the city's residency requirements that the 15-mile rule in place for police officers was eventually applied to all city employees so that it would be equal for all.

City Council passed an ordinance in February 1989 that said all employees except police had to live in the city for at least one year after being hired, and then could move within the 15-mile radius. Police were exempted because of the arbitrator's ruling. Then-Mayor Tullio, who was against any changes in the residency requirement, wrote City Council a letter saying that having different rules for different departments wasn't fair.

"I believe all employees of the city should be treated fairly and equally," Tullio wrote.

In December of that same year, the ordinance was changed to read that all employees must "maintain a residence within a 15-mile radius."

Sinnott said he wishes all city of Erie employees would choose to live within city limits.

"I think if people live within the municipality they are working for, they're more sensitive to the fact that they're paying their own salaries as well," he said. "But a lot of them have chosen to live outside the city, and that's their right."

The president of the Erie FOP is Detective Sgt. John Barber. He and his wife, Pamela, also a detective sergeant on the force, live in eastern Erie County.

"I chose to live there after my first Christmas, and I was shopping with my pregnant wife and 6-year-old stepdaughter," Barber wrote in an e-mail. "I ran into the same male that I had just arrested the night before for dealing drugs."

Barber, 42, said he and his family feel safer living outside the city.

"Yes, I live in the county," he wrote. "But my child goes to school every day without worries that someone is going to hurt her because her dad locked up their father or mother last night."

Other police officers who live outside the city limits and who were asked to comment for this story declined.

"They might stay"

Dave Chiaramonte, president of the Erie firefighters' union, moved to Summit Township several years ago to care for his ailing mother-in-law. He had lived in the city before that.

Chiaramonte said he considered distance when he decided to move. He said he can get to work at Engine Co. 6, at 1740 W. 26th St., in less than 10 minutes. It took him longer to get there when he lived in the city, he said.

"I understand the 15-mile rule because you don't want someone coming from Meadville if we have to expedite recall of personnel to work," Chiaramonte said.

"I don't buy that living in a community necessarily makes you more connected to it—I work in Erie, I know the neighborhoods," he said. "My wife and I are often downtown to grab dinner. You're as connected to a community as you want to be."

Firefighter Thomas A. Cooper, 40, lives closer to City Hall than any other Erie firefighter or police officer—six-tenths of a mile. His house is on the east side.

"My family's lived in this house since 1882," he said.

Cooper, a firefighter since 1997, also said he feels an obligation to live in the city, though he said he doesn't push his philosophy on his co-workers.

"There are just guys who choose to live out in the county and guys who choose to live inside the city. There's really no animosity or anything," Cooper said. "I personally feel that if you're employed by the city you should live in the city, just because your taxes stay in the city then. But that's my opinion."

Firefighter Bryan Delio, 35, lives on the city's west side. He was required to live within city limits when he was hired in 2000, and he stayed.

Delio said the city should reinstate the rule requiring employees to live within city limits for at least the first year on the job. He said he believes the rule would help the Bureau of Fire increase minority recruitment, a persistent issue in the department.

"Before, you had to at least establish residency," Delio said. "Then they might stay, like I did."

For Guy Santone, the chief fire inspector, the reasons for staying in the city failed to outweigh his chance to live in his dream house in a rural area on an acre of property. So Santone headed to Greene Township.

"It's not like I don't want to live in the city. I love the city," Santone said. "It just afforded me a different opportunity."

KARA RHODES can be reached at 870-1858 or by e-mail.
CODY SWITZER can be reached at 870-1776 or by e-mail.