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Both sides make opening arguments in fight over St. Louis residency requirement

A view looking out on the rotunda from the second floor of St. Louis city hall.
File photo | Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis aldermen have begun debating a measure to life the residency requirement for city employees.

An effort to change the city of St. Louis charter and eliminate the residency requirement for city employees is underway.

Aldermen on the city’s legislation committee heard about two hours of testimony on the measure Wednesday night. A vote by the committee and the full Board of Aldermen will come on later dates. Because it’s a charter change, eliminating the residency requirement would also take a 60-percent vote of the people.

Alderwoman Carol Howard, D-14th Ward,introduced the bill to ease issues with recruiting candidates, especially for the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. Currently, almost all city employees have to live in the city in order to stay employed with the city. Police officers and firefighters have a bit more freedom, and exceptions can be granted, though that rarely happens.

Sgt. Mark Ogelsby recounted the difficulty he had in convincing people to join the Lambert-St. Louis Airport Police.

“I have had numerous police officers, already experienced, that are like, y’all hiring?” Ogelsby said. But the second they remember they have to live in the city, he said, they change their mind.

“They worked at other munis that don’t pay half of what we pay, that don’t have any benefits, because they don’t want to live in the city,” Ogelsby said, adding that he got the same response for jobs outside of law enforcement as well.

Zach Fortune, a supervisor for the streets department, brought in a list of 200 signatures he collected about a year and a half ago supporting changes to the residency requirement.

“The major point here is that 90 percent of these people that signed this out of 200, they’re willing to stay in the city,” he said. “I just purchased my first home last July. So I’ve got 29 more years to go. If this were to pass, I’m not selling my house. I’m not leaving.” It’s about expanding the pool for new applicants, he said.

But opponents of the proposed change said the city needed to do more to help its own residents get qualified for the available jobs.

“When I hear that we need this to pass so that there’s a wider pool to hire people from, all I keep thinking about is the thousands of people in our city who are unemployed, and instead of having to pay money for people to relocate to the city, what would it look like to instead invest that money into job training programs, or to support the youth with figuring out a career that could land them in the city,” said Mary Densmore, a resident of the 5th Ward.

Many of the speakers who opposed eliminating the residency requirement said it was especially important for first responders like police and firefighters.

“For a year and a half I was living in the city and commuting to Chesterfield and I had way more investment in the city of St. Louis than I did to Chesterfield,” said 8th Ward resident Veronica Page. “It makes sense to have first responders be invested in the city.”

The committee vote has yet to be scheduled.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.