Vermilion officials may revisit residency policy
DANVILLE — More than 3,600 people live in Vermilion County but work in Champaign County, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
And another 300 Vermilion workers report to jobs over the state line in Fountain County, Ind., and 156 in Vermillion County, Ind., according to bureau numbers.
Vermilion County Board Chairman Gary Weinard asks the question: What if employers in neighboring counties had a residency policy like Vermilion's requiring that some employees live within the county?
Such policies are not uncommon among municipalities and other governments that see value in requiring employees to live in and pay taxes to the cities or counties in which they work.
Rantoul requires department heads to live in the city, and in 2011, the Fisher Village Board adopted a policy that all full-time employees live within the village, prompting the resignation of the fire chief. The city of Champaign requires department heads to live in the city, and last year, offered a monetary incentive of $3,000 to encourage Champaign police officers to live within the corporate limits.
In 2007, Danville adopted a residency policy requiring all employees hired after Jan. 1, 2008, to live within the city unless an employee is covered by a collective-bargaining agreement.
City administrators have pushed for similar requirements in collective bargaining, and some unions, like clerical and public works employees, have agreed to a residency policy. The city has tried to negotiate one into police contracts, too, but has not been successful.
Danville Mayor Scott Eisenhauer said he's a very firm believer that government employees who live in the communities in which they work are more passionate about serving those communities.
"You can't convince other people as a city employee that Danville is a great place to raise a family and work in every day if you are living somewhere else. You just simply won't have the same passion in improving your community if that community is not one in which you choose to live," he said.
But others, like some Vermilion County administrators who must fill technical positions, argue that it can be difficult to fill positions that require specific qualifications and experience, and residency requirements only shrink the candidate pool.
Vermilion County Engineer Doug Staske's highway department is one of the four county departments that fall under the county's residency policy.
He currently has at least three employees in technical or engineering positions that live outside the county. He said his first choice would be to hire from within the county, but finding candidates with certain skills and technical experience is a challenge for most counties and certainly for most rural counties and towns. He said he's in direct competition with the Champaign-Urbana market to fill those positions.
And Shirley Hicks, public health administrator at the Vermilion County Health Department, said in more populated cities and counties where there's a larger workforce to pull from, local governments can more easily have such requirements. But, she said, when the health department is trying to fill certain openings like nursing, nutrition and environmental health positions that require certain degrees, certifications and experience, it helps to broaden the area from which she can pull job candidates, especially when the pay and benefits may not be as good as in the private sector.
Hicks has worked at the health department for almost 30 years and has always lived in Indiana. In 2010, when the county passed the employee residency policy, requiring all newly hired non-union employees to move to Vermilion County within six months of their hire date, the health department challenged whether it could legally be applied to the department. The Illinois attorney general's office gave county officials an opinion, stating that the residency policy could not be applied to the health department, because the local board of health governs such decisions, and it also could not be applied to any of the county elected officials' offices, which includes sheriff, recorder, circuit clerk, county clerk, coroner, auditor and treasurer. However, due to the nature of their jobs as emergency responders, the sheriff's department does require deputies to live within the county.
The Champaign County sheriff's office also has a residency requirement. And, county Administrator Deb Busey said, the highway department has residency requirements, as do department heads in the county, but there is no blanket countywide policy for employees.
Vermilion County's personnel and finance committees recently discussed rescinding the county's policy, which, after the Illinois attorney general's opinion, can only be applied to non-union workers in four departments: building and grounds, the highway department, animal control and the Vermilion Manor Nursing Home. Also, the county plans to sell the nursing home, which would leave only non-union workers in three departments under the residency requirement.
But some on the county board don't want to rescind it altogether. So Weinard and county administration officials agreed to do some research and bring back to the committee some alternatives to the existing policy, including exactly how many county positions would fall under the policy.
Weinard said he wants to see the best person hired for county jobs and doesn't believe the county needs a residency policy.
Hicks said that for her it's about job performance, and if a person is willing to drive a long distance, that's fine. She said the health department has an employee who drives from Tuscola every day, and the department has positions with some specific educational and experience requirements that can be difficult to find, so if the right person is willing to drive, that's OK. Hicks said licensed environmental health practitioners are a good example, because fewer and fewer are graduating with that degree, making it difficult to hire.
The city of Danville has had a difficult time filling vacant engineering positions. For months, it's been trying to fill a design engineer position and also has a vacancy for an engineering/transportation planner position. But Eisenhauer said there are multiple reasons for that, not the city's residency requirement. He said there's often better pay and benefit packages in the private sector for engineers and less public scrutiny of their work.
But in general, Eisenhauer said, the city has had job candidates not interested in a position because of the residency requirement, or the city has had residents in the county ask if the residency requirement could be waived, and as a result, some city administrators trying to fill positions have questioned the residency policy.
But Eisenhauer said regardless of the city position, whether an engineer, police officer or streets worker, he's an adamant believer in city employees living within the city.
"If you are going to be in a position responsible for making it a better place, then you should live here, so that every day, regardless of whether you're driving to work or the school or to the grocery store, you are seeing opportunities for positive impact. For example, one of the reasons we asked the (streets, sewer and garbage employees) to agree to a residency policy, is if they are driving over that road every day, they have a greater desire and deeper passion to fix that road and to clean up that neighborhood, because you live in it."