Boston's political culture is fossilized, resistant to new ideas. If the city is going to cope successfully with the economic crisis that envelopes the nation, it is going to have to start thinking creatively, using its collective imagination in ways that will allow it to get by with less. It was in that spirit that the Phoenix two weeks ago suggested the Boston School Department overhaul its system of citywide busing in order to redirect millions of dollars into classrooms, rather than spending those increasingly scarce funds on vehicles, fuel, and drivers.
Here is another idea that could change Boston's political culture for the better: end the requirement that people who work for the city live in the city. In theory, residency requirements sound great. Workers who live here, the thinking goes, will put more into their jobs. But few people seem to recognize that the city's residency requirement inadvertently drives up labor costs.
The reason is simple: in the final analysis, the mayor's office, which — directly or indirectly — manages labor talks, is negotiating with a group of voters. And municipal workers appear to vote in greater numbers than does the general public. That is one reason why the city has been saddled with contracts of late that it can now no longer afford. There are other reasons for this. Mediation and arbitration seem to favor unions over taxpayers. And because the governor and the state legislature will not allow Boston the leeway it needs to determine its own fiscal future — a circumstance that cripples the city in myriad ways — the Hub finds itself captive to labor costs that could, in the coming years, seriously punish all residents.
Mayor Thomas Menino, an undeclared candidate for re-election, is a strong champion of the residency requirement and will not reconsider. City Councilor Michael Flaherty, one of Menino's opponents, agrees with the mayor on this one. City Councilor Sam Yoon, another challenger, is more critical, but has not yet offered a proposal for change. And long-shot maverick mayoral candidate Kevin McCrea says residency requirements should be decided at the collective-bargaining table. (Kudos to City Councilor John Tobin, of West Roxbury, who has tried to make this a citywide issue.)
Both sides have presented worthy arguments. But ultimately, the residency requirement is — through no individual's fault — such a hodgepodge, it simply makes no sense as public policy.
Less than one third of the city's employees — fewer than 5000 — were subject to the residency requirement, as of a 2004 Boston Globe review. For starters, Massachusetts's teachers had the foresight and political muscle to get the state legislature to exempt them from residency requirements statewide. That takes the city government's biggest union out of play.
Thousands of additional employees have been grandfathered in, based on vastly different starting dates, depending on when their union's contract first included the residency requirement. Still others have been granted waivers, often because of political connections.
The result is that some 12,000 city employees, according to that same Globe review, are free to live outside the city, with no obvious detrimental effect. To the contrary, the city gets better workers by opening the jobs up to the broader talent pool of applicants who choose to live elsewhere. If there are qualified, hard-working people in Randolph, Quincy, Somerville, and Brookline we could be adding to our police force, fire department, and other city departments, are we really in a position to turn them away?
Meanwhile, the city's employees forced to keep a Boston address — clerks, secretaries, and those in their first years on the job — are disproportionately the least powerful, and least able to afford the city's high rents and home prices.
The result is an unintended farce. We pretend that the city benefits from paper-pushers in the education department living among the students, when the teachers live out in the 'burbs. We think nothing of paging an on-call veteran homicide detective in Milton, who would be exempt from residency requirements, for a 3 am shooting, but won't let a second-year cop commute from just across the Brookline border.
If the city agrees to drop the pretense, it can trade the residency requirement for concessions, of much greater value to the city. In recent contract negotiations, the city's unions have shown how dearly they want the rule revoked — for merely capping the requirement at 10 years on the job, they have been willing to have their members pay a greater share of health-insurance costs. It's time to find out what they're willing to swap for eliminating residency altogether.