PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – When the mayor’s picks for new city jobs appear in front of the Providence City Council Finance Committee as part of the hiring process, Chairman John Igliozzi usually begins with the same question.
“Do you know where Silver Lake is?” Igliozzi asks, referring to the heavily Democratic neighborhood that he and his brother David before him have represented on the council since 1989.
The savviest applicants might mention the popular restaurant El Rancho Grande on Plainfield Street or sledding at Neutaconkanut Hill, but Igliozzi maintains that too many employees, particularly well-paid ones charged with crafting or implementing policies, have lost touch with city neighborhoods because so few of them live in Providence.
The numbers appear to back up Igliozzi’s point.
A Target 12 review of Providence payroll records shows only about one in four city employees who earn a base salary of at least $80,440 – the highest-paid 10% of city workers – is a resident of Rhode Island’s capital city. Overall, 35% of the city’s 5,488 full- or part-time employees call Providence home.
“We are hiring people who are going to mandate policy in the city of Providence but have never lived here and don’t even know the neighborhoods,” Igliozzi told Target 12.
A deeper look at the city’s wage list shows a trend even more concerning to council members like Igliozzi. Of the city employees who interact most with city residents, very few live in Providence.
In the police department, just 17% of the 396 sworn officers are city residents, and only three of the 27 highest-ranking officers – from lieutenants to the chief – live in the city. Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare also lives outside of Providence.
In the fire department, only 19% of the 338 employees live in the city.
On the education side, 22% of the 2,056 members of the Providence Teachers Union reside in the city. School Superintendent Chris Maher, whose $192,000 salary is the highest of any city employee, did buy a home in Providence when he was named the permanent head of schools last year.
For city employees on the low end of the pay scale, it is more common to live in Providence. Of the 597 workers who earn less than $20,800 a year, 70% are city residents. (This group is mostly made up of recreation department employees, crossing guards, substitute teachers, and paid members of various city boards.)
Nearly half of all members of Local 1033 of the Laborers’ International Union, which represents more than 1,600 city employees, live in the city. Of the 192 members of the Local 1339, which represents school clerical workers, 110 call Providence home.
Igliozzi maintains that having more city employees who earn a middle-class income living in the city would create a “built-in economic class that would help the city’s tax base.” He said it would “create stability” in neighborhoods and schools.
“If they live here, they’re vested in the city and they understand it,” Igliozzi said. “They understand the people and their needs.”
Providence used to have a residency rule
When Igliozzi was first elected to replace his brother as the Ward 7 councilman in 1997, Providence did have a residency requirement for city employees.
The city’s Home Rule Charter of 1981 required all city employees hired by the city after Jan. 1, 1983, to live in Providence. The residency rule was upheld by the Rhode Island Supreme Court in 1986. In 1990, city residents voted to remove the requirement. Two years later, they brought it back, despite strong opposition from most of the city’s labor unions.
Supporters of residency rules have long argued that forcing city workers to live in Providence would lead to more homeowners or renters taking pride in their neighborhoods. Opponents say residency rules limit the pool of qualified candidates for certain positions, particularly in a state as small as Rhode Island.
During Igliozzi’s fourth year on the council, the General Assembly intervened, passing legislation that banned residency rules for teachers. The City Council mulled filing suit to block the law, but a lawyer advised against moving forward.
In 2004, state lawmakers exempted public safety workers from residency requirements, but the city decided to challenge the law in court. A year later, lawmakers banned residency altogether.
Igliozzi acknowledges the state law means the City Council can’t require city employees to live in the city, but he said the city could provide incentives to employees who do reside in Providence, such as a break on the car tax or an offer to pay for moving expenses.
On the campaign trail in 2014, mayoral candidate Jorge Elorza agreed with Igliozzi.
Elorza said he recognized that the residency rule couldn’t fully be reinstated, but pledged to require all new department heads to live in Providence. He said he supported a longstanding policy that adds 10 points to a police officer’s application if the candidate lives in the city and said he would look into discounted apartments for new cops who reside in Providence. He also said “extra consideration for internal promotion” would be on the table.
Since he became mayor, the results have been mixed.
Two high-level Elorza hires, Superintendent Maher and economic development director Mark Huang, live in the city. Director of public works Michael Borg and Providence Emergency Management Agency director Kevin Kugel, do not. Pare, the public safety commissioner, and Police Chief Hugh Clements, two holdovers from the previous administration, live outside the city.
Of the 35 members of Elorza’s staff, 23 live in Providence, including chief of staff Nicole Pollock, deputy chief of staff Marisa O’Gara and policy director Courtney Hawkins. For the upcoming Providence police academy, a third of the recruits live in the city, according to Chief Clements.
Victor Morente, a spokesperson for the mayor, said city officials discuss their preference for Providence residents during the hiring process. He acknowledged there are times when the best candidates do live outside the city.
“Although the city has not offered ‘incentives’ to convince employees, the mayor continues to encourage that municipal workers reside in Providence,” Morente said.