City, union officials united against rule
HUNTINGTON -- Members of Mayor Kim Wolfe's administration and two city employee unions are urging voters to repeal a requirement in the City Charter which forces employees to live in Huntington.
Huntington residents will decide the fate of the residency requirement and two other proposed amendments to the City Charter during the Nov. 6 general election. Union representatives and Administration and Finance Director Brandi Jacobs-Jones say the requirement hinders the delivery of services because it restricts the city's ability to hire the highest-caliber employees.
"Our area truly is regional in nature," Jacobs-Jones said. "It's not as if we are just a city and when you cross our corporate boundaries you are in no man's land. There are bedroom communities in every direction. So in order to increase our pool of job candidates, we shouldn't restrict ourselves by requiring employees to live only in Huntington."
The residency requirement has been a contentious issue for city officials and employees and a source of numerous court cases during the past decade.
The most recent case resulted in a 2009 settlement stipulating all employees working for the city at the time were exempt from being required to live within city limits. Anyone hired after Oct. 23, 2009, has to provide proof of residency in the city within 90 days of starting their job.
Jacobs-Jones and representatives of International Association of Firefighters Local 298 and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 598 made their case against the residency requirement during the good and welfare portion of Monday's City Council meeting.
Jacobs-Jones said she was a vehement supporter of the residency requirement when she was elected to City Council in 2004 because she believed city employees should pay the same taxes and fees as the citizens they served. But during the five years Jacobs-Jones has been director of administration and finance, she said she has seen the detrimental effect it has had on hiring.
The city in recent years has switched from a seniority-based to a merit-based promotions system for AFSCME and administrative jobs in an attempt to fill positions with the most qualified candidates. The residency requirement runs counter to that effort, Jacobs-Jones said.
"As it stands, we do not pay a highly competitive wage that creates the incentive or willingness to relocate in our community," she said. Many municipalities which have residency requirements provide incentive programs for potential candidates, such as higher wages, low-interest loans and home-ownership programs. The city in its financial condition is not currently in a position to provide such incentives."
Several positions ranging from laborers to the public works director have been vacant for extended periods of time, partly because of the residency requirement, Jacobs-Jones said. She recalled a job candidate from Chesapeake, Ohio, who had applied for a mechanic's position in the city garage a few months ago.
"He was highly qualified and had certifications above and beyond what the job required," she said. "But in the end he didn't want to uproot his family, and we lost out on a prime candidate. The position is still unfilled."
Danny Plybon, president of AFSCME Local 598, said his union is opposed to the residency requirement for several reasons, most notably because of the 90-day deadline for new employees to move into Huntington. It is unrealistic to expect employees to sell their house outside city limits and buy a new one inside the city in that time frame, he said.
"It's bad enough that you're told right off the bat by your new employer that you have to live in a specific place," Plybon said. "Then you're told, 'Oh, by the way, you have 90 days to move your family and find a new house and no one's going to help you with moving expenses.' "
Plybon's sentiments are echoed by Shane Masters, vice president for IAFF Local 298. Similar to AFSCME employees, who are on probationary status for their first three months on the job, Huntington firefighters are on probationary status for a year.
"There's no guarantee you will have a job after the first year, but you're expected to go ahead and make a life-changing decision and move your family into the city," Masters said. "That's crazy."
The city had no residency requirement from 1994 to 2002 because it was ruled unenforceable in Cabell Circuit Court. However, the requirement was never removed from the City Charter, and City Council voted to reinstate it. Masters said he remembers hundreds of applicants taking the written exam to become a Huntington firefighter when the residency requirement wasn't enforced. The department has struggled to get 100 applicants to take the test each time it has been offered since 2002, he said.
"The residency requirement doesn't affect me personally because I was one of the employees who was grandfathered in and can live outside city limits," Masters said. "But it really does affect me because I want the best of the best working beside me. The citizens should want the same thing."