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Eyeing the burbs: Pittsburgh workers want residency option that teachers won

Sunday, July 08, 2001

By Cindi Lash and Gary Rotstein, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

In order to accept a position five years ago at Rooney Middle School on the North Side, teacher Steven Travanti was forced to trade his modern home in Ross for an older one just over the city boundary in Brighton Heights.

He's never stopped wanting the option of moving back to the suburbs while hanging onto his job with the Pittsburgh Public Schools. Last month, the state Legislature passed a measure that gives him that option.

Patti Steinitz and her daughter, Hunter, at their Brighton Heights home. Steinitz, a police officer for 21 years, grew up on the North Side and would be satisfied to stay there if she could find a house that made life easier, rather than more difficult, for her family. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

A few blocks away, police Officer Patti Steinitz lives in a two-story house that's unsuitable for the medical needs of her disabled daughter, Hunter, 6. She bought it after a long, unsuccessful quest for a one-story house large enough to accommodate her daughter's medical equipment and the rest of her family, and she still wishes she could keep searching in other communities.

She can't.

Steinitz is among about 4,300 Pittsburgh employees who are required to live in the city that employs them. Like many other municipalities around the country, Pittsburgh traditionally has included a residency requirement as a condition of employment. Since 1981, the city school district, too, had required newly hired teachers to live in the city.

But now that the Legislature has overturned the residency requirement for teachers, Pittsburgh's police union has given notice that it, too, plans to challenge the rule. Those events have prompted other city workers to start thinking and talking among themselves about the validity of such rules.

"There's a sense of security knowing that two doors down the street you have a paramedic or a policeman," said Jim Emro, a Public Works employee and president of the 31st Ward Citizens Council, which takes in Lincoln Place, New Homestead and Hays.

"I'd like to see the teachers [be] bound to stay here, too, but that teacher issue has opened up a can of worms that's going to go across the board" for all city employees.

Talk like that is worrisome to Pittsburgh government and community leaders, who say they'll oppose efforts by any employee groups to overturn the requirement.

"Doing away with the residency requirement is the kind of thing that could change the city drastically. It could be the city's downfall," said city Councilman Alan Hertzberg, who last month sponsored a measure supporting the requirement.

Whether those concerns are warranted is unclear.

The U.S. Supreme Court and other federal courts generally have upheld the rights of municipalities to impose residency requirements. But in recent years, several states and numerous U.S. cities have done away with requirements after state courts, state legislatures or employee groups have pressured them to do so.

In some cities that have dropped residency requirements, large numbers of employees have fled to the suburbs, the cities' populations have become less racially diverse and their tax revenues have shrunk. Others have experienced little or no population or financial losses and, particularly in the case of school districts, have seen their pools of applicants increase.

"There's been a lot of action and a lot of information out there on the issue," said Sona Pancholy, associate counsel for the International Municipal Lawyers Association, an organization for local government attorneys. "But you can't say there's a trend in one direction or another."

A Philadelphia issue

In Pittsburgh, the issue heated up after the state Legislature voted June 21 to eliminate residency restrictions for teachers in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. The move was intended to help Philadelphia attract more candidates for vacant teaching jobs there.

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Unlike Philadelphia, Pittsburgh does not have a teacher shortage. But the Legislature included Pittsburgh anyway, eliminating residency restrictions that had applied to about half of the city's 3,000 teachers and counselors, to prevent the city from becoming the only municipality in the state to require residency for school employees.

A week later, leaders of the Fraternal Order of Police said they would go to court to overturn a portion of an 11-year-old law that requires them to live within city boundaries. The city has had a residency rule for all employees for decades, but in 1990, it pushed to include such a rule specifically for police in state legislation that revamped the police discipline system.

Since the FOP announcement, the issue of controlling public employees' addresses has been on the minds of the workers themselves, their employers and leaders of neighborhoods that have a strong concentration of public workers.

City leaders and national agencies that study municipal government issues said residency requirements could help cities retain tax dollars and build and maintain neighborhoods that are safe, stable and economically solvent.

Municipal employees generally are the kind of folks whom cities want to attract and keep -- they earn steady, solid salaries that enable them to rent or buy homes, maintain their property, pay taxes and vote or otherwise take interest in how those taxes are spent.

In Pittsburgh, a slew of attractive neighborhoods are packed with police and other municipal workers and administrators. In addition to Lincoln Place, there's Stanton Heights and Morningside in the East End, Brookline, Banksville and Bon Air in the South Hills and Brighton Heights and Summer Hill on the North Side.

But city workers who live in those communities often complain about paying wage and school taxes that are higher than those paid in communities a few blocks or a few miles away.

"This is the United States of America. You should be allowed to live where you want," said firefighter Mike Fish, 49, of New Homestead, whose concerns over taxes and dissatisfaction with city services have him longing to move to another municipality.

"Every time I turn around, our taxes keep going up and up and up. ... I want the same opportunity [to move] as everybody else."

Taxes, schools cited

Steinitz, a police officer for 21 years, grew up on the North Side and would be satisfied to stay there if she could find a house that made life easier, rather than more difficult, for her family. Her younger daughter was born with digestive problems and Harlequin Ichthyosis, a rare genetic disorder that causes her skin to grow too fast, restricting her breathing, movement and ability to regulate her body temperature.

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Hunter requires 24-hour monitoring, a nurse who stays in her home at night, special medical equipment and a wheelchair when she is unable to walk or crawl. The Steinitzes spent four years searching for a roomy, affordable one-story house so that Hunter wouldn't have to crawl or be carried to a bedroom or bathroom. Last year, they settled for a larger two-story house in Brighton Heights.

"So she crawls, which I find demeaning and I'm sure she will find demeaning when she gets older," Steinitz said. "I've tried to raise her as normally as possible, and I could have bought a house in Shaler that would have helped me to do that. But I had to stay in the city."

Other residents, like firefighter's wife Deborah Bilski, 44, of Carrick, said their desire to leave the city stemmed from a growing dissatisfaction with the city schools.

They favor neighborhood schools and resent that the district failed to hear their objections when it closed schools this year to trim its budget. Some complain that city schools are unsafe, too crowded and fail to offer high-quality academic programs found in suburban schools.

"The city needs to take a look at the reasons why these people want to go. Education is the No. 1 reason why people leave or want to leave, but [the city and school district] ignore everyone," said Bilski, who, with her husband, Ralph, spends more than $10,000 each year to send their son and daughter to Seton LaSalle Catholic High School.

Her unhappiness, Bilski stressed, was not because her children would have had to attend public school with black children. Students from her neighborhood now are slated to attend middle school this fall in Brookline, and that's just too far away, she said.

"Brookline and Carrick kids have been feuding forever and they're from two [primarily] white neighborhoods," she said. "This is not a white-flight issue. My kids would be in public schools if [the schools] were closer, better and not overcrowded."

Residency proponents, however, say that allowing middle-class employees to live elsewhere would result in a less racially and economically diverse city, where workers retreat at night to segregated enclaves instead of living and interacting with each other.

It could have a special impact on school diversity, residency proponents said.

"While there are still a lot of racial issues in Pittsburgh," Pittsburgh school board President Alex Matthews said, "we offer a lot of diversity, particularly in the school system. If people do leave, the school system will become more black.."

And in city neighborhoods where the population already is predominantly of one race, children and their parents may have few opportunities other than the city schools to get to know people of different races and backgrounds, residency advocates said.

Are police threatened?

The FOP, which represents the city's 1,070 police officers, cited all the usual arguments when it announced its intention of challenging the residency requirement.

But it also made a case that's unique among city employees -- that the requirement puts officers and their families at risk by forcing them to face harassment and retaliation from dangerous people whom officers have arrested or investigated.

FOP President Gene Grattan said criminals or their relatives had harassed or followed officers, fired shots at officers' homes, bothered their spouses in stores and bullied or attacked their children in schools.

Some of those police families testified before arbitrators last year when the FOP unsuccessfully sought to overturn the residency requirement during contract negotiations with the city. Arbitrators ruled against the FOP, saying they lacked the authority to overturn state law.

Officers who complained about harassment did not respond to requests to be interviewed. Grattan acknowledged that officers could not ensure that criminals wouldn't find them or their homes if they lived outside the city, "but it would make it harder."

Doug Root, a spokesman for Mayor Tom Murphy, countered that there was no evidence that the problem of officers' families being put at risk is widespread or new.

"There may be a few officers who legitimately have that concern, but it's nowhere to the degree that I believe the Fraternal Order of Police is claiming there is. ... Frankly, that kind of problem can be solved in other ways," Root said.

When the issue of residency has come up during past contract talks, city officials have said that public safety workers must live in the city to ensure quick response in emergencies. They also argue that the presence of police in city neighborhoods will discourage lawbreakers from committing crimes there, said Robert Swartzwelder, the FOP's grievance chairman.

Yet when some officers have gotten involved in crimes they've witnessed while off-duty, they've been scolded or disciplined for conducting unauthorized "self-assigned" investigations, he said.

FOP leaders could not estimate how many officers would move if the requirement were eliminated, but said they didn't believe a mass exodus of police or other workers would occur.

Even if some do move, it wouldn't necessarily hurt the city economically, they said.

City workers would have to be able to sell their homes before they could leave, and people who can afford to buy those homes aren't likely to be deadbeats who won't pay taxes or maintain their properties, Swartzwelder said.

Nor would officers suddenly stop being conscientious or dedicated if they moved out of the city, Grattan said.

"We take pride in this job. We are professionals and our policing would not change," he said. He noted that state police were required only to live in the state, not in towns they are assigned to patrol. "It might even boost morale. Like any other professionals who work in the city, we would choose to be there rather than be forced."

Firefighters cite clout

Leaders of the Fraternal Association of Professional Paramedics and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal employees, which represent most other city workers, said they had not officially considered backing the FOP's anti-residency movement because members have not raised the issue.

Joseph King, president of International Association of Firefighters Local 1, said he saw the value of the requirement and wouldn't challenge it. King said the issue arose only once in his 13 years as president, about 10 years ago.

The "overwhelming majority" of those present decided that firefighters should help to support the city's financial burden by staying and turning their tax dollars over to the city instead of to other municipalities.

Because hiring rules have always required firefighters to be city residents for at least one year before applying, most of the 889 active union members are longtime Pittsburghers who don't desire to leave, King said.

By contrast, the city changed hiring practices for police in the early 1990s, accepting applications from candidates who lived outside the city but who agreed to move in, because it needed to replace a large number of retiring officers. Officers who formerly lived in the suburbs might like to return there, but King said that was not the case for most firefighters.

He said he didn't know how many firefighters would leave if given the chance, but he was concerned that any such change would hurt his union's clout with political leaders and at bargaining time.

City politicians would have less reason to respect a union if many of its members weren't voting in local elections. Arbitrators, too, would look less favorably on union wage demands if its members were leaving the city and reducing the tax base, King said.

Still, individual firefighters and other city workers privately concede that they don't share their union leaders' public positions. That has some city and community leaders fearing the prospect of "For Sale" signs sprouting all over once-thriving neighborhoods.

"We know the kind of neighbors the schoolteachers are and firefighters are. They are solid citizens who contribute to the community," said Dan Keller, a member of the city Planning Commission and a past president of the Brighton Heights Citizens Federation.

"I know we've got good neighbors in these people. When we lose them, who would replace them?"

"If taxpayers in a city are paying your wages, they're your employer," Hertzberg said. "It presents a terrible message, a message of hypocrisy, for an employee to say 'I'll work for you and take your money but I don't want to be here because this place isn't good enough for me.' "

The Murphy administration has no intention of willingly dropping the requirement for any employee group.

"The mayor's position has always been that, when city employees are residents in the place that they serve, they are stakeholders and they will care more about how services are delivered and the general quality of life in the community," Root said.

Staff writer Carmen J. Lee contributed to this report.

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