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LANDERS COLUMN: Won’t you be my neighbor?
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LANDERS COLUMN: Won’t you be my neighbor?

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The Dells School Board took a unique approach to try to get teachers to actually live where they work, by paying them extra to do so. A $200 stipend is planned for teachers hired that live within the school district boundaries. While some may scoff at this approach, the school board is doing what it can to connect employees with their community. More public employers should take note.

When I was hired as a Dells police officer in 1992, the deal was I had to live in the Dells School District. I had no problem with that and thought of it as a no-brainer. I went even further and became a city resident, and have been one ever since. Living in the city I worked allowed me to not only know my city better, but also for the city residents and businesses to know me better as well.

Times have changed and loyalty to an employer is definitely not what it used to be. As mayor, it was clear more city employees wanted to live in other communities. It was a hot-button issue early in my term as residency requirements were being challenged all over the state, specifically in Milwaukee where their police and firefighters didn’t want to live in the city limits. I eventually testified at the Wisconsin’s Legislature Joint Finance Committee as they were creating a law that would eliminate residency requirements for municipal employees.

I argued against stripping residency requirements away from public employers, but the Milwaukee Police and Fire unions had already lobbied key politicians and the law was passed with some slight limitations. Arguably, the law was only passed as the Republican-controlled Legislature knew it would tick off Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, a Democrat. Otherwise, it made no sense to ban residency requirements from local municipalities. The president of the Milwaukee Police Union at the time said that if the law were passed to allow him to live outside the city of Milwaukee, he would move to Wisconsin Dells. That was close to ten years ago and I’m still waiting for him to move here.

So now, public employers have very little say or control as to where their employees live. The school district has many teachers living in Reedsburg, Baraboo, and areas outside of where they teach, some even in the Madison area. The same holds true for our local police departments, EMS service, and other municipal services.

I still have strong feelings about those who are paid to serve our communities, but do not live in them. I’ve been very blunt in saying you should live where you work if you work for a public employer. For my real job as an educator, I live in my college district and wouldn’t think of doing otherwise.

Living in a community brings a higher level of involvement, care, and effort to make it better. We know every teacher, police officer, librarian, or paramedic doesn’t go into that career for the money. They go into those careers to serve, help, make a part of the world a better place, and do something they can be proud. Yet there is a distinct difference from working somewhere and living somewhere. You are just more invested in a community in which you live.

You become more familiar with the people, crime, schools, businesses, and issues of the community in which you plant your roots. A teacher that lives in Madison and teaches in the Dells just cannot hold the same level of knowledge and concern of Dells issues concerning youth and families. I will say the same holds true for a first responder who lives outside of the area they serve. Not to mention the extended time it takes to have those paid for our safety respond to their communities during an emergency. At least our local fire departments get it right when they still require residency. It also shows in the level of their involvements in our communities as well. How many of you know more local firemen than teachers, police officers, or paramedics? That is why everyone loves firefighters; they are your neighbors.

There also are the economics of living where you work. While municipal and school employees are not millionaires by any means, they typically make a decent salary with great benefits and excellent job security. Not many people in our area can say that. To take that salary and comfort elsewhere is just wrong in my opinion. Those employees then shop, dine, build homes, and pay taxes in other communities. They are investing back in those communities.

And lastly, is the perception of it all. How does it make you feel when a teacher or police officer doesn’t want to be your neighbor? When they would rather build homes and send their kids to school elsewhere? That would be like working for Ford and showing up to work driving a Chevy every day. These are the people we pay through our tax dollars to serve us and help make our corner of the world better and safer. It only seems fair to want them to have skin in that game.

It’s too bad that the Dells School District has to take to bribing their teachers to live here, but I get it. It’s a different approach but at least they are addressing the issue. I’d like to see more municipal employers address this issue as well. I heard many times as an officer, “My taxes pay your salary.” There is a lot of truth to that, and our local city and village residents should want to see a return on that investment.

Brian Landers, a former Wisconsin Dells mayor, writes a weekly column for Capital Newspapers. Reach him at brianlanders@charter.net.

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