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New St. Louis aldermen take their seats on first day of session

Board of Aldermen President, Lewis Reed, (center), presides over the first day of the city's newest legislative session on Tuesday, April 16, 2019, in City Hall. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

ST. LOUIS — When the Board of Aldermen returns Friday after a two-month summer break, a proposal to repeal the residency rule for police and other merit system employees will be among the issues in play.

On a narrow 15-12 vote on July 3, aldermen endorsed a measure to let voters decide on repeal through a proposed city charter amendment at the November 2020 election.

Sponsor Carol Howard, D-14th Ward, held off a final board vote the following week because two members who voted yes moved to the undecided column.

Howard said last week that she plans to try again as soon as the board’s next meeting on Friday.

“I’m going to bring it forward and let the chips fall where they may,” Howard said.

She said if the measure fails, opponents will have to explain their reasoning “when people call them when a tree that hasn’t been trimmed falls on their house.”

Mayor Lyda Krewson and police Chief John Hayden have emphasized that repealing the residency rule would help attract more applicants for police vacancies during a time of high-profile violent crime. The city is 124 commissioned officers below its authorized total.

But officials say the requirement that employees live inside the city also makes some other city jobs — tree trimmers among them — difficult to fill.

“It’s essential to our recruiting,” Krewson said of residency rule repeal. “It’s not the cure-all but (the rule) is one of the impediments to hiring,“ she said.

That’s especially true during the current “environment of very low unemployment,” she added.

Rick Frank, the city personnel director, said the city has vacancies in about 16% of its 6,700 full-time civil service jobs, due in part to the difficulty in recruiting. The rule of thumb in human resources, he said, “if you get to an attrition rate of 12%, there’s need for concern.”

Opponents of repeal say they worry that because the measure also will allow more current city employees to move to the suburbs, some city neighborhoods would suffer further population decline — especially in poorer areas.

They also argue that city sales tax revenues could decline since people often shop near where they live.

“This isn’t just about losing population, it’s about losing tax dollars,” said Alderman Brandon Bosley, D-3rd Ward, in the July 3 debate.

Ward reduction revisited?

One alderman reconsidering his initial vote in favor of the residency repeal bill — Jeffrey Boyd, D-22nd Ward — made a different point in a recent interview.

He said the measure’s chances of getting through the board would increase if the mayor also would support putting ward reduction on the ballot next year for a repeat vote.

Krewson has opposed having a re-vote on that issue and last year threatened to veto a similar bill. A veto requires 20 votes to override, more than the simple majority of 15 needed for passage.

Under the plan, passed by voters in 2012 and set to kick in for the 2023 city election, the number of wards and ward aldermen will drop to 14 from the current 28.

“I just would like to see a compromise” allowing separate residency repeal and ward reduction measures to go on the 2020 ballot, Boyd said.

Meanwhile, the sponsor of this year’s ward reduction re-vote bill — John Collins-Muhammad, D-21st Ward — said he’s “open to conversations” on a possible deal. Collins-Muhammad voted against residency rule repeal on July 3.

Krewson in an interview last week said the two issues “need to stand on their own merits.” She also said that “we ought to live by the will of the voters” expressed in 2012.

Asked whether her veto threat is still in effect regarding the ward reduction re-vote bill, the mayor said she would decide what to do if it gets to her desk. “I take every subject on its own,” she said. “This sort of quid pro quo ... is old-time politics.”

Boyd stopped short of saying he definitely would vote against putting the residency rule on the ballot without such a deal. He said he agrees that the city’s reach for good job applicants would widen if the residency rule was repealed.

Under the residency rule charter amendment, department and agency directors appointed by the mayor still would have to live in the city. So would elected officials.

Repealing the residency requirement also would result in treating all police and firefighters the same way.

Since 2005, police employees with seven years’ city service have been allowed to live outside the city. Firefighters with seven years’ service won the same authority in 2010 from the Legislature but their exception is set to expire in 2022.

A state law allowed them to move outside the city as long as the city schools weren’t fully accredited or for five years after the district regained accreditation, which happened in 2017.

Frank says the police seven-year rule applies only to officers hired before the city gained control of the department in 2013 from the old state-appointed police board. The police union disagrees.

As of last year, Frank said, about 700 police employees and about 260 fire employees had taken advantage of the exemption. He said he believed the total hadn’t changed much since then.

Meanwhile, the city charter allows waivers of the rule to be given to people in jobs requiring “a very high degree of specialized education or skill” or when qualified candidates who are willing to fill a job and live in the city “are not reasonably available.”

Krewson a year ago announced that the city Civil Service Commission would issue waivers for up to 50 new police recruits. But so far only two have applied and one was rejected, Frank said.

Meanwhile, in his 15 years as personnel director, he said, just one person in another agency has been granted a waiver.

The city charter has had a residency requirement since 1914 but the city had residency rules for some positions even before that. The issue didn’t become controversial until the 1950s when more and more city residents began moving to the suburbs.

The residency requirement for police began in the early 1970s when the state-appointed police board began requiring new officers to live in the city amid efforts by aldermen to force the issue.

Other city offices

In addition to the police and fire employees who don’t have to live in the city, more than 500 city workers who aren’t part of the civil service system also can reside outside St. Louis if they choose.

Among those are employees of the circuit attorney, the city treasurer and the circuit court. There also is no city residency requirement for the 150 or so workers in the St. Louis circuit clerk’s office, who are considered state employees. The clerk himself must be a city resident.

Susan Ryan, a spokeswoman for Circuit Attorney Kimberly M. Gardner, and Benjamin Singer, a spokesman for Treasurer Tishaura Jones, said those officials had continued the policy inherited from predecessors.

Ryan said about half of Gardner’s “130-ish” employees lived inside the city and half elsewhere. Singer said Jones’ office doesn’t track where its approximately 150 full-time and part-time workers reside.

Three other independent elected officials whose offices aren’t part of civil service — Collector of Revenue Gregory F.X. Daly, Sheriff Vernon Betts and Recorder of Deeds Michael Butler — all require most employees to live in the city but allow some exceptions.

For example, Daly said three of his 93 employees live in St. Louis County, including a certified public accountant and an information technology worker he wanted to hire because of their qualifications.

The other, Daly said, is a retired city police officer who had already been living in the county under the exemption for veteran police employees.

Greg Christian, a spokesman for Betts, said the sheriff has given exemptions to seven of his 159 employees for various reasons.

Butler says his office policy also allows him to waive his office residency policy at his discretion.

Employees in the mayor’s office and of the Board of Aldermen also must live in the city.

Another elected official whose office is outside the civil service system, License Collector Mavis Thompson, didn’t respond to a request from the Post-Dispatch for her residency policy.

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