The proposal that top city officials be required to live inside the city limits is up for a public hearing Monday night, and Missoula Mayor John Engen said he plans to present his own version of the ordinance.
“The short version is anyone employed by the city of Missoula up until the time the ordinance becomes effective is exempt from the ordinance. Any employee hired thereafter will be subject to the ordinance,” Engen said of those hired as department heads or supervisors.
The city of Missoula doesn’t require its municipal employees to live inside the city limits, and earlier this month, City Councilwoman Cynthia Wolken proposed a residency requirement for those in the upper echelon of city government – with exemptions for current top officers.
Her thinking: City employees should pay city taxes to contribute to their own salaries, live among the city’s residents, and reside under municipal ordinances.
Several council members have shown the measure strong support, but employees of the Missoula Police Department and Fire Department have fought it. At an earlier meeting, Missoula Police Chief Mark Muir said 60 percent of his command staff and 75 percent of middle management live in the county; Muir himself chose to move outside the city “to improve my quality of life.”
Last week, Wolken said she hadn’t seen Engen’s alternate proposal, but they had talked about it and she was comfortable with the idea.
However, she doesn’t want an ordinance that’s too watered down.
“I don’t want it to be so broad that it means we won’t have department heads that live in the city for 30 years or something like that,” Wolken said.
According to the city communications director, the city employs 466 full-time and part-time staff members and another 79 who work intermittently, such as lifeguards. The total who live outside the city limits are 160, including two who live in the city part of the year and outside the city part of the year.
Wolken said the ordinance isn’t targeting any particular individuals.
Rather, it’s a blanket policy similar to ones other cities have, and other cities haven’t had trouble attracting talented workers with the requirement in place, she said.
When city employees live outside the city limits, taxpayers at times foot part of the bill. A few years ago, the city cracked down on employees taking municipal vehicles home, but some people still do, with and without permission, confirmed Jack Stucky, vehicle maintenance superintendent.
“There’s a lot of good reasons for being out of town too, but there’s some people that, like anything, try to slip in,” Stucky said.
Some city-fleet cars go to Frenchtown or Stevensville. He doesn’t like to see cars go outside the city limits because of the fuel and maintenance costs, which can shorten the lifespan of a car from 10 years to five years.
“When they travel that far, the service intervals are shorter,” Stucky said. “In other words, we’ve got to change the oil, we’ve got to work on them more often. And the life expectancy of the vehicle is shorter.”
Detectives who are on call with the police department and workers on call with the wastewater treatment plant take home vehicles with permission, Stucky said. About once a month, he’ll get a call from someone who believes they’ve seen a car leave the city limits without permission.
Stucky agrees city employees should have a vested interest in the city of Missoula. Now he lives in the county, but he lived inside the city for 18 years and still owns two properties in Missoula.
“I pay more taxes than most folks do – and don’t live in Missoula,” Stucky said. “I always try to look out for the best interests of the taxpayers of Missoula, so I think there should be a clause for those who own other property.”
At an earlier council meeting, a police detective said she feared Wolken’s proposal would hurt female police officers’ ability to rise in the ranks. She said the only female officer in line for the chief’s job lives in the county.
Wolken said she was concerned when she heard the detective’s remarks and reached out to learn more. But she wants to drill down to the root problem to find out why there’s a gender imbalance among top police officers, especially when an estimated 13 percent of the force is female – a relatively high number in Montana, she said.
“My concern is what are the barriers for women to go to the next level of supervisor? There’s only one (female) out of 30. To me, that’s the bigger issue,” Wolken said.
Mayor Engen’s draft proposal exempts all current employees from the requirement, and Engen believes that’s only fair.
“I think folks were hired, and they had some expectations. This wasn’t one of them,” Engen said of the residency requirement.
His version of the ordinance has the following exemption: “Any individual employed by the city of Missoula on the effective date of this ordinance, including department heads and supervisory managers, is not subject to this ordinance and is eligible for promotion without city residency requirements.
“Any individual employed by the city of Missoula that resides within the city limits on the effective date of this ordinance, including department heads and supervisory managers, may move outside the city limits but may only move within Missoula County.”
Engen said he wants employees to feel like the city is sticking with its terms of agreement, but at the same time, he thinks it’s “perfectly fair” to ask people in key positions to live in the city.
He said the new development services officer will be expected to live inside city limits.
One argument against requiring more employees to live in the city limits is housing costs more in the city. However, even a single rookie police officer earns $49,092, more than the median household income in Missoula.
So far, the proposal hasn’t veered toward requiring more people with higher salaries to live in the city limits, and the mayor isn’t prepared to discuss that option.
“It’s not on the table today, and I think this is not a question without some ambiguity,” Engen said.
City Councilman Dick Haines likes the mayor’s idea to grandfather in current employees. Otherwise, people’s lifestyles are at stake.
“Maybe they’ve got a couple horses and they’ve got a couple acres and their kids like it,” Haines said. “I don’t think it’s fair to tell them you have to work in the city.”
The public hearing is set for 7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 25, in Council Chambers, 140 W. Pine St.