Residency requirements for public officials vary

Kathie Zipp

Court decision could alter Kent’s policies

The Ohio Supreme Court decision to uphold a ban on residency restrictions for public employees has been an important issue in many communities throughout the state. However, Kent officials say the ruling will not affect the city in ways it could elsewhere.

Many local charters have ordinances that require city employees to reside within local boundaries. In 2006, the state legislature ruled this was illegal. In Lima v. State last June, the Ohio Supreme Court held that a state law prohibiting general residency requirements for public employees is valid and supersedes local laws stating otherwise.

Kent Safety Director William Lillich said the residency restrictions did not apply to all public officials. The police force did not require officers to reside in the area, while the fire and service departments did.

“Both departments have a distance requirement driven by the need for timely call back,” he said. “Fire requires a quick response. And if there’s a snow storm and we need plowing or utility lines are down, we need service workers to be on the scene quickly.”

Lillich said some restrictions on administrative positions, such as safety director, service director and city manager are an absolute requirement of the job. It is specifically stated in the local charter that they must live in the city unless council approves otherwise. It is not yet known how the court’s decision will affect this.

Captain David Manthey of the Kent Fire Department said firefighters were previously required to live within a certain time limit that has fluctuated throughout the years. He expects the new charter will allow firefighters to live in counties bordering Portage, such as Summit, Stark, Trumbull, Geauga and Mahoning. He does not expect this to affect emergency-response time.

“Our guys have the option to be on the list for voluntary overtime,” he said. “To do that, they simply must be able to get here within 15 minutes after being paged.”

Manthey said the department has enough firefighters willing to do overtime, especially with the current economy, and it doesn’t need to make call-ins a requirement. He also said firefighters work 24 hours and then are off 48 hours, so driving a longer distance to work doesn’t pose a huge inconvenience.

Kent Police Chief James Peach said the situation is different for officers. There are extra times they need to come into the city, such as for court purposes.

“They may need to be back here two or three times a day with hours in between,” he said. “What do they do? . Some stay here. It’s a balance concerning residency the officer has to weigh.”

One argument for residency restrictions concerns taxes. If public employees live in the city they serve, not only do they provide income tax, but are also more likely to provide sales tax.

However, Peach said this isn’t a great concern in Kent because the city does not have many large grocery stores or retail. Public employees are more likely to shop outside of Kent.

Nevertheless, Lillich said there are other advantages to having public employees live in the city they are serving.

“It is of value to see the community from a different perspective other than working in an employment role,” Lillich said. “You develop a different set of skills, personality and kinds of relationships.”

Still, Lillich is sensitive to employees who are uncomfortable living in an area where they have to regulate behavior. Peach said this is an issue, especially for officers.

“The neighborhoods have different expectations for officers living in them,” he said. “If a dog runs out, neighbors may be more critical, but that’s to be expected.”

Peach said officers also see problems when they are out shopping with their children and encounter hostile people they have had to arrest. Officers are very protective of their families and see this as a great deterrent to living in the city.

Lillich said the city also does not have the means to attract many public officials and their families. More than 65 percent of housing in Kent is rentals. However, most employees are already settled, and Lillich doesn’t expect a great number of them to move.

Lillich and Peach both agree that regardless of what the situation is, as long as the residency requirement is well established at the time of employment, there is no room for complaint.

“We will live with the rules that are imposed upon us and get by,” Lillich said.

Contact public affairs reporter Kathie Zipp at [email protected]