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If you make a solid salary working for the city of Missoula, you should live inside the city and pay municipal taxes.

That’s the idea behind a proposal from Councilwoman Cynthia Wolken to require city department heads to reside in the city limits. Any directors who currently live outside the city would be grandfathered in and would not be in peril of losing their jobs, but the city would mandate new hires live in Missoula proper.

“I think it’s fair they should be paying city taxes if they’re making budget requests,” Wolken said Tuesday.

The idea has been on her mind since Wolken joined the Missoula City Council and was surprised to learn the city did not already have such a policy in place. It’s common for cities to require residency, and the councilwoman wanted to run the idea past fellow councilors before the city hires its Development Services director, who will earn as much as $105,000 a year.

The conversation is on this week’s agenda of the Administration and Finance Committee, which meets at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday at 140 W. Pine St. If council members want to move ahead with the idea, it will be drafted as an ordinance.

Case law supports the rule, said City Attorney Jim Nugent. In fact, he said a municipality can require all its employees to reside inside the city limits and not limit the requirement to department heads, but that’d be difficult for lower paid staff in Missoula.

“At various times, there’s been difficulty finding housing, and probably moderate to affordable housing,” Nugent said. “There’s a lot of employees that live outside the city limits, I think.”

The number of city employees who live outside the city wasn’t immediately available Tuesday from Human Resources, but Nugent said various arguments support the requirement. From a human resources perspective, the city benefits from reduced tardiness and absenteeism, he said.

“If they are employed by the city and live in the city, the argument is that they would naturally have a greater responsibility, personal responsibility, for the welfare of the municipality because they’re part of the community,” Nugent said.

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Other arguments note the economic benefits, he said. City employees should live in the city to spend their money on businesses in the city limits, for one thing. And some larger cities argue the requirement helps reduce unemployment in the city, he said.

“If they’re drawing their pay from the city taxpayers, they should be contributing to the pay for their salary,” Nugent said.

The city already requires firefighters and “peace officers” to live within 30 minutes of city limits to “better ensure a relatively quick response time by public safety emergency personnel,” reads Municipal Code 2.8. Failure results in automatic termination.

Wolken said she’s open to exceptions and other ways to draw the line, such as top salaries, and she understands lower paid city staff can’t always afford to buy a home inside city limits. But top paid department heads can afford to do so, she said.

According to the city communications director and Human Resources, the city clerk is among the lowest paid manager at $62,786, and the chief administrative officer is among the highest paid director at an estimated $104,000. The police chief earns $95,741 and the Parks and Recreation director makes $83,525.

Wolken said those department heads are steering policies for the city, so they should be living in city neighborhoods, driving on city streets, and contributing to city coffers.

City Clerk Marty Rehbein is a department head who lives in the Ninemile, and said she doesn’t have an opinion on whether the requirement is a good idea. Because she is considered a city officer, or the secretary of the municipal corporation, she had to seek permission from the council when she moved out of the city limits in the late 1990s, and the council granted it.

If other councilors like the idea, Wolken would like the rule in place before the new Development Services director is hired. Communications director Ginny Merriam said the city has selected a group of finalists and plans to interview them in early March.

Reporter Keila Szpaller can be reached at @KeilaSzpaller, 523-5262, keila.szpaller@missoulian.com or on MissoulaRedTape.com.

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Reach Keila Szpaller at @keilaszpaller, at keila.szpaller@missoulian.com or at (406) 523-5262.

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