[caption id="attachment_232066" align="aligncenter" width="1200"] The Wilmington City Council is debating whether to reinforce its longtime residency rule for city employees, but the mayor's office says it puts the city at a disadvantage when trying to fill roles in today's labor market. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS[/caption]
Over the past decade, Wilmington has experienced an economic renaissance, as developers invest in new downtown apartments, banks set up offices to manage credit and investment operations, and nonprofits work to remake large swaths of neglected communities.For all that positive momentum though, the city largely has not grown – literally.According to U.S. Census Bureau data, the population of Wilmington has largely hovered between 70,000 and 72,000 for the last 20 years.New people are coming here, but many clearly aren’t putting down long-term roots. The reasons for that likely vary, ranging from rising rents on downtown units, a lack of new-build, single-family housing, a fear of crime, and growing amenities in the city’s suburbs, among others.That reality combined with a workforce market that continues to see millions of open positions nationwide after COVID is why it’s easy to understand why Wilmington is once again pondering the removal of its longtime residency requirement for city workers.Last month, Mayor Mike Purzycki said he was moving forward with hiring new employees without enforcing the residency requirement because the City Council had not passed a new ordinance to enforce it following state legislative changes in 2022.According to Purzycki’s office, about 92 city jobs are currently vacant, and many can’t be filled because applicants will not accept a residency requirement.“There are critical government positions open such as engineers, planners, attorneys, sanitation drivers and collectors, a water lab supervisor, 911 emergency dispatchers, and police officers among others … These vacant positions are undermining the efficiency of our government,” the mayor said in a statement announcing his move.Debate over whether to approve a city ordinance officially removing any residency requirements for public employment wasquickly met by opposition from a few dozen city residents at a council meeting though.Their arguments are well placed, saying the requirement increases loyalty to the city, enhances the local tax base and development, and creates better community relations. Many fear that losing a residency requirement could leave Wilmington at risk of being absorbed by the New Castle County government in the future. Others were insulted by the insinuation that current city residents, where more than 2,100 people were reported as unemployed in September, couldn’t fill the open positions. It’s true that some of these jobs likely could be filled by city residents, especially those that don’t require advanced education degrees like lawyers and engineers, and better marketing or wage offers could attract some locals to fill the roles.But it’s hard to believe that locals who want to be city police officers or sanitation workers don’t know where to go to find the opportunities. Both are easily found with Google searches.The reality is that many of these jobs have seen declining workforce participation for many years, either because society has unfairly deemed them less desirable, like sanitation, or they come under greater criticism and scrutiny, like our police.These are not jobs that people anywhere are beating down the doors to fill, and it’s why Wilmington’s latest police academy class had the fewest number of cadets in its history – just seven.In a nation where much of the Baby Boomer generation is rapidly approaching traditional retirement age and many of Generation X took advantage of savings during the pandemic to retire early, the Wilmington Police Department and other city offices will soon be dealing with an influx of retirements. It can ill afford to host classes of just seven cadets.Wilmington is not alone in this debate about whether to sunset its residency rule.This year,St. Louis scrapped its residency requirement for all city employees while Philadelphia has indefinitely extended a waiver on its rule for police officers and prison guards amid city workforce shortages. Hoboken, N.J., dropped its requirement for police officers, but it has given first priority to cadet classes to city residents. Police leaders in Boston and Memphis have also called for the removal of residency rules that they feel are impacting hiring. Even smaller cities like Scranton, Pa., andPekin, Ill.,have dropped the rule with its police officers amid union contract negotiations.While the rules were born decades ago as a way to keep loyal workers close to the neighborhoods they served amid a flight of residents to the suburbs, the ecosystem has changed dramatically in the last few decades, and especially post-COVID.Namely the price of housing and mortgages have risen dramatically in Delaware, and many would-be applicants for city jobs would likely think twice about giving up a newer suburban home with a 2% mortgage to move to the city for an older home at a nearly 8% mortgage.The city, and all public employers including the state and counties, are also now competing in a job market where many companies are doubling minimum wage and offering significant sign-on bonuses to attract workers. They often also offer hybrid or remote work opportunities that some of the city roles don’t offer simply due to the nature of their work.Add on the city’s 1.25% gross wage tax and potentially dealing with on-street parking amid other challenges.While I can sympathize with a desire for local public support, the reality is that Wilmington is no longer a city of 100,000-plus people and it’s likely time to open its doors for greater support from the outside.
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