Sometime next year, the mayor of Detroit will unveil a plan to seduce firefighters and police officers who live outside the city back to where they earn a paycheck. There’s no dispute that Mayor Dave Bing is long on ideas. But if he spent as much time solving problems as he does talking about solutions, he wouldn’t have to resort to desperate measures to get people to call Detroit home.
Details of the seduction strategy are sketchy. The plan, however, is obviously intended to counter an 11-year old state law that struck down residency requirements in local municipalities. With its passage, thousands of liberated city workers packed their bags and moved their families to suburban addresses within a 25 mile radius of their jobs. By some estimates, 50 to 60 percent of police and fire personnel live outside the city, which reportedly depletes Detroit’s tax collections by as much as “$25 million” annually. Getting them to leave the comfort of better schools, less crime, lower home and auto insurance rates and return to Detroit will require an extraordinary offer.
The mayor has hinted the lure may take the form of real estate transactions rather than cash. Perhaps public safety officers will be allowed to homestead in some of the thousands of foreclosed or abandoned houses. Maybe he’ll forgive the onerous taxes owed on the properties. Accelerating the razing of dilapidated structures to stabilize neighborhoods would be a good idea.
City officials, and many Detroiters, have long advanced the thought that employees have a moral obligation to return some of their pay in the form of taxes. This notion is not altogether unreasonable. Government, though, has a reciprocal responsibility to provide workers a city worth living in.
According to conventional wisdom, city employees are more effective if they live where they work. Cops who live in the city are thought to be quicker to respond to 911 calls and have more identity with and compassion for city inhabitants. Firefighters are said to extinguish fires faster in neighborhoods where they reside.
Such claims are emotional and easily exploited. There is no empirical evidence showing a connection between where employees live, the kind of job they are hired to do and their dedication to the city. Police and firefighters are trained, tested professionals capable of transferring those skills from city to city.
Lest we forget, thousands of Detroiters commute daily beyond the city’s political boundaries to jobs in other cities and school districts and don’t pay an additional tax for the privilege. Scores of suburbanites commute into the city and pay a 1.5 percent non-resident income tax without getting any real benefit. Does that mean either group is uncommitted or disloyal to where they work? Does the non-resident income tax offset the estimated $25 million in lost revenue?
Let’s hope the mayor doesn’t opt for the path of least resistance with more special benefits for a selected few instead of making tough decisions to make Detroit more habitable for everyone. Until the most pressing issues are addressed, any suggestion that city workers should desire or have a responsibility to reside where they are paid is indefensible. Worse, it pathetically reveals the city administration’s inferiority complex.