During discussions about filling top public works and engineering positions — a process that’s moving into its second year — two-thirds of the Mobile County Commission soundly rejected a proposal that would require whoever accepts those positions to live within the county.
Commissioner Connie Hudson is said to have been floating the idea of such a “residency requirement” for weeks, but the first public acknowledgment came during discussions about the job description and pay scale for four top employees in engineering and public works.
When former engineer Joe Ruffer retired after 42 years at the helm of a very consolidated department, the county agreed to split those functions down the middle to improve efficiency, cut duplicative costs and address an “extremely unhealthy workplace” culture.
Now the county is looking to fill leadership positions for the public works and engineering functions that have now been separated. This week, commissioners agreed with a Mobile County Personnel Board’s recommendation to set the salary range for those positions as from $108,085 to $314,845 — on the higher end of the personnel board’s 32-grade pay table.
During a discussion about those salaries and the duties the county expects to receive in exchange for them, Hudson suggested adding a residency requirement for those positions, meaning any candidate not living Mobile County would have to relocate within “a reasonable amount of time” to accept the job.
“I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect them to be residents of Mobile County,” Hudson told Lagniappe. “To me, it’s an important show of support, and it indicates that our staff has a vested interest in Mobile County and what’s happened here and that they are paying taxes here.”
Similar residency requirements are not uncommon for municipal employers, especially with regard to public safety employees such as police officers and firemen who have to respond to situations with little or no notification.
“Outside talent” has caused controversy in Mobile when Mayor Sandy Stimpson filled administrative positions or board vacancies with Baldwin County residents. Councilman Fred Richardson was critical of Stimpson’s former Chief of Staff Colby Cooper’s decision to live in Fairhope, as well as some other top members of the administration.
For employees in Mobile, there is no official residency requirement for city employees with the exception of the police chief and fire chief. However, those requirements are based solely on distance, according to city spokesman George Talbot.
In her pitch to the commission last week, Hudson said other agencies have residency requirements similar to what she’d like to see the county adopt. She specifically cited the Mobile County Communications District, though Director Charlie McNichol told Lagniappe that’s not entirely accurate.
While MCCD has no residency requirement, McNichol said any on-call personnel must live “within a reasonable response time.” However, that policy isn’t based on any geographical boundary or tax jurisdiction, as Hudson’s would have been, had it passed.
Commissioner Jerry Carl said he understood why Hudson would be in favor of a residency requirement, but said it seemed “two-faced” to exclude candidates from surrounding areas when there’s such a “regional mindset” when working with other counties on economic development.
President Merceria Ludgood was more direct in her comments, saying rather quickly that “putting up artificial barriers” as a job requirement wasn’t something she would be supporting.
“Unless we’re prepared to say everybody that works in Mobile County needs to live in Mobile County, it just doesn’t seem fair to cherry-pick positions and make that a requirement,” Ludgood said. “We’re just in a place now where these geographic boundaries, for me, they just don’t mean a lot in regards to the way that we live, shop and do business.”
Because there was little movement on Hudson’s proposal, it’s unclear exactly what impact it would have had on the search to fill the current vacancies in the engineer and public works department.
What’s more, in last week’s conference meeting, Hudson also said she felt “all department heads” for the county should be subject to a similar residency requirement, which, if it was ever implemented as policy, could potentially affect a greater number of current employees.
By the time the commission’s Nov. 13 meeting rolled around, though, it was clear the proposal lacked the support to move forward. Because of that, it wasn’t listed on the agenda, though Hudson interjected during the meeting to ask that the minutes reflect her efforts.
When asked about that after the meeting, Hudson told Lagniappe that voting down the residency requirement was a missed opportunity for the county to “lead by example.”
“We go out of our way as we’re recruiting industry and businesses to encourage those people moving here to live in Mobile County, but we can only encourage,” she said. “We put lot of money into incentivizing economic development initiatives, and we want a return on investment. Part of that return is people paying taxes and spending disposable income in Mobile County.”
Since Ruffer left his position as county engineer, the county has spent a lot of time and money in hopes of retooling the department — one that oversees millions of dollars of road and bridge projects every fiscal year.
After paying more than $30,000 for a consultant to review the department, the county agreed to split the responsibility and control over the engineering and public works functions between two positions and to shift certain functions such as parks and recreation, environmental services and information technology to county administration.