Court rules Wis. city cannot enforce firefighter residency requirements

State law prohibits local governments from enforcing any residency requirements beyond requiring firefighters to live within 15 miles of the government unit

By Scott Bauer
Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. — Milwaukee can no longer enforce a long-standing requirement that police, firefighters, teachers and other public workers live within city limits, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The court ruled 5-2 that Milwaukee's residency rule is subject to a state law barring such restrictions. It's a win for Gov. Scott Walker and fellow Republicans who control the Legislature and passed the requirement three years ago, overcoming opposition from Milwaukee's Democratic leaders and others who warned the change would devastate the city's economy.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, a Democrat, blasted the ruling, calling it a "sad day" for his city and the state.

"This is not the Wisconsin that we have lived in before and the people of this state have to recognize the dangers when you have one party that controls every level of power," Barrett said at a news conference.

But Walker's spokesman Tom Evenson hailed the ruling.

"This is a big win for individual freedom, as city employees now have the ability to choose where they live, and it's a win for Milwaukee as they have a larger base to attract employees," Evenson said.

The ruling reverses a state appeals court decision that the residency requirement could not be superseded by the 2013 state law. Milwaukee has required its more than 7,000 employees to live within the city boundaries since 1938, but had put the restriction on hold pending the court fight.

The state law prohibits local governments from enforcing any residency requirements beyond requiring police and firefighters to live within 15 miles of the government unit. It applies statewide, but Milwaukee officials, a bipartisan group of lawmakers and other opponents argued that Milwaukee was clearly the focus as Wisconsin's largest and mostly Democratic city and the loudest defender of the residency requirement.

The police and firefighter unions that challenged Milwaukee's refusal to follow the law backed Walker in his gubernatorial campaigns, including the two times he defeated Barrett.

Supporters of residency requirements generally argue that there is a benefit to having public workers live in the communities they serve. They say it increases response time and ensures the workers have a vested interest in the area.

Opponents say employees shouldn't be denied the right to live where they like. And they say a residency requirement could limit applicants and inhibits promotions.

Republican Glenn Grothman, now a congressman whose district includes Milwaukee suburbs, argued against the change as a member of the state Senate in 2013. He warned that middle class city residents will flee to the suburbs.

"If this doesn't work out right, we're not going to be able to take it back," he warned three years ago.

The city argued before the Wisconsin Supreme Court that the state law could not be enforced in Milwaukee because it did not affect all cities, towns, counties, villages and school districts in the state equally. That's a violation of Wisconsin's "home rule" amendment in the state constitution, Milwaukee argued.

But defenders of the law argued it trumps the "home rule" authority, and the residency requirement is applied uniformly statewide.

Justice Michael Gableman, writing for the court's conservative majority, agreed with the unions and state law takes precedent over the city's residency requirement because it applied equally statewide.

"The Legislature has the power to legislate on matters of local affairs when its enactment uniformly affects every city or every village," Gableman wrote.

The two dissenting justices — Ann Walsh Bradley and Shirley Abrahamson — disagreed, saying the state's "home rule" amendment gives cities such as Milwaukee the power to self-govern, allowing them greater autonomy over local affairs.

The ruling is expected to affect only Milwaukee because its residency requirement was uniquely tailored to the city. About 100 other cities with some form of residency requirement came into compliance with the state law after it passed three years ago, said Curt Witynski with the League of Wisconsin Municipalities.

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