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Residency restrictions anger some

March 18, 2002|BY ANDREW SCHOTZ

The distance between Marion, Pa., and Chambersburg, Pa., is about five miles.

The distinction is greater.

If Patrick Martin had kept his home in Marion, he wouldn't have been allowed to work for the Chambersburg Fire Department.

Of the largest municipalities in the Tri-State area, Chambersburg may have the strictest residency clause: All municipal employees must live within the borough.

Washington County and Hagerstown each compel department managers, but not other employees, to live where they work.

Martinsburg, W.Va., allows police officers and firefighters to live up to 25 miles, as the crow flies, from the Berkeley County Courthouse. There is no restriction for other city employees.

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There are no residency requirements for employees of the Berkeley County, W.Va., and Franklin County, Pa., governments.

In the municipalities with no restrictions, officials say it isn't an issue.

Berkeley County Commission President Howard Strauss said he's opposed to forcing employees to live in the county.

"It limits a county's ability to have good (employees) ...," he said. "Several of our employees live in Maryland."

Washington County Administrator Rod Shoop argued the other side, at least for department heads.

"I think it's very important to live in the county ... that you work in to better understand the citizens' desires, the citizens' services that need to be provided," he said. "Also, to be in the county to use those services."

Hagerstown's requirement for department managers does not apply to employees promoted into their positions, said Human Resources Director Donna Messina.

There could be other exceptions. Messina said applicants for management jobs are not automatically eliminated if they don't meet the residency requirements. The City Council has the final say.

Messina said "a significant number" of city employees who are not department heads live in Pennsylvania or West Virginia.

Practical concern

There's a practical concern about keeping Martinsburg's police officers and firefighters nearby.

"They're always on call," City Manager Mark Baldwin said. "We don't want them living too far away."

There isn't the same urgency for civilian employees, most of whom live in Martinsburg or Berkeley County, Baldwin said.

And it's a moot point in Chambersburg, which doesn't have a "callback" policy for off-duty firefighters, said Martin, president of the union. "If there is a fire, we don't get called back to work."

The only exception was in 1972, when Hurricane Agnes hit and "Chambersburg was split into two," he said.

Borough Manager Eric Oyer said the reason for the residency policy is, "People living in the community in which they work have a greater sense of community and commitment."

The residency clause, enacted in 1976, initially covered only firefighters, police officers and department heads.

In 1995, the policy was expanded to all other borough employees.

New employees have up to one year to move to the borough. Department heads may grant an extension of six months.

People who began working for the borough before the requirement went into effect were not bound by it, so employees didn't have to move to keep their jobs.

'Slap in the face'

Chambersburg Councilwoman Sharon Bigler called the "sense of commitment" argument "dumb" and a "slap in the face."

"I feel like we're holding these people in bondage," she said. "(Residency) should be a basic human right."

Bigler said the policy has driven away candidates for jobs.

Last year, two borough police officers resigned, in part because they wanted more flexibility in where they could live.

"After the recent birth of my son, I have decided that the residency requirement dictated by the borough of Chambersburg is unacceptable to me," David Funk wrote in his resignation letter. "I have learned in the 21/2 years working for your department that having to live in the same area that you police is difficult."

Funk now works for the Huntingdon (Pa.) Borough Police Department.

Travis Pugh resigned in March 2001.

"It was more than just the residency requirement, but it was a factor," Pugh said Friday during a telephone interview. He said the requirement is unfair.

After four years with the Chambersburg Police Department, Pugh wasn't sure if he wanted another job or, perhaps, career.

He left the force to become a wildlife conservation officer with the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

Coincidentally, Pugh is assigned to Fulton County, but his regional office is in Huntingdon. He hasn't seen Funk, "but I may bump into him one day," Pugh said.

Last month, the borough council heard from Rob Roberts, who works in the gas department, that at least three borough employees were violating the residency clause.

Oyer acknowledged last week that the borough was investigating a few alleged violations, but he wouldn't comment further.

Since the policy was put in effect, one employee has been fired for not meeting it, Oyer said. He wouldn't name the employee or the position.

Provision protested

The union representing 18 borough firefighters continues to protest the residency provision and asked that it be eliminated from the next contract.

The borough and the union are awaiting the outcome of an arbitration hearing over residency and other labor issues. The firefighters' last contract expired Dec. 31, 2001.

The police officers, whose contract expires at the end of this year, have also opposed the requirement.

Oyer noted that arbitrators have upheld the clause in past fire and police contracts.

Martin has heard the arguments and doesn't agree.

He wouldn't let a Chambersburg building burn to the ground whether he lived in Marion, Chambersburg or anywhere else, he said. Neither would the three firefighters who don't live in the borough because they started working before the residency clause began.

"Their work performance isn't any different than anyone else's," Martin said.

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