Friday, March 28, 2008

A few thoughts on residency

It is not about the person, it is about the law…and the benefits to the city.
Prior to Judge Feinberg handing in her decision in the Santiago case, there was a lot of back and forth about the policy of granting residency waivers to select individuals employed by the city.

Some people insist that residency requirements should be done away with completely. They don’t feel it matters in the least where anyone who works for the city lives.

Others say waivers should be allowed in certain circumstances.

One phrase we hear often in these arguments is that “we need the best person for the job, not the best person who will reside here to take the job.”

That just doesn’t make sense and here’s why:

If residency is a requirement for the job and a candidate is not willing or able to meet that requirement, then simple logic dictates they are not the best candidate for the job.

It makes you wonder what these “we don’t need residency requirements” folks think of the people who have voluntarily chosen to reside here in Trenton. If “the best” won’t relocate here, are those of us who have second rate? Isn’t that a slap in the face of the many, residency-law-abiding city employees?

Let’s make something else perfectly clear: residency requirements were enacted by the people of this city to help mitigate the loss of the middle class (and above) residents to the surrounding area. The idea was to maintain a resident base of people who could support the economy of the city by earning and spending their money here.

It’s interesting to note that the Palmer Administration’s policy of “selective enforcement” of the residency ordinance has coincided with an increasing amount of Trenton tax dollars flowing out of the city in the form of paychecks and professional service contract payments to non-residents.

Just look at the city law department. There was a time when the City Attorney and staff handle the vast majority if not all of the city’s legal work. The members of the department were required to live in the city from which they drew their paychecks. They paid taxes on their homes here; they patronized the restaurants, stores and movie theatres (remember them?) here. The dollars stayed in circulation in town. Business was supported; jobs were supported so more people could earn a living wage.

A picture of the law department today tells a completely different story. We have a City Attorney (I believe it may be a statutory requirement). But we also have the highly compensated “Special Counsel” who is essentially a non-resident contract employee. We also regularly retain several other outside attorneys to handle labor cases and contract negotiations; defense for the many damage and injury claims that are filed against the city (take a look at a council docket sometime), most from outside of the City.

In this most recent example of the residency waiver challenge, only the citizen plaintiff’s had local representation. City Council, the Mayor, Director Santiago and corporate entity of the City of Trenton all had separate legal representation and all were from out of the area.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees paid by the city each year to contract out services to providers who don’t live in the city.

Why not make sure we had an adequately staffed, professionally capable law department comprised of city residents. Then the wages paid would have at least half a chance of staying within the community and doing good where it is needed most (rather than Cherry Hill, or Livingston or Keyport etc.

Our so-called leaders tell us repeatedly of the need to attract people with expendable income to reside here; seek entertainment here; shop here; dine here.

And then they contradict themselves by giving money by the wheelbarrow load, not to mention cars, cell phones, etc., to outside attorneys, “gang” consultants, and the like.

Trenton will continue to suffer until and unless those who have been elected to office are held accountable.

Residency is one tool by which we can do that.

Doing away with it, amending it, waiving will only exacerbate our problems.

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