In recent months we have all read about new assaults on the District's residency law. This old debate has been heightened by horror stories about the sad state of the District's ambulance service. Prominent emergency medical experts point to our residency law as a prime reason for the inefficiencies of our ambulance force. It's enough to make one take pause and consider the emotional, political, and practical aspects of the seven-year-old law.
When the D.C. Council voted in 1979 to require every D.C. government employee to live in the city, I was one of the staunchest supporters of the measure. After all, I thought, if District employees have a vested interest in the place where they live, stronger ties to their jobs and their communities will naturally develop. And since the District is prohibited from taxing the incomes of non-residents who earn income in the city, a residency law would at least ensure a solid tax base for the District from approximately 60 percent of our employees who live in the District.
However, since 1980 when the residency law became effective, we began to exempt one class of employees after another. So many groups of employees are now exempt from the law that the question of fairness comes into play. How in good conscience can we exempt certain classes of employees from the residency requirement and impose it on others simply because certain job categories are more difficult to fill?
I also feel a certain moral dilemma in restricting a person's basic freedom to choose where he or she lives. We all know the cost of owning a home in the District of Columbia continues to grow steadily. Believe it or not, the average price of buying a home in the District is approaching $160,000. The average annual salary of an ambulance worker is $19,000, and novice firefighters start at $22,000. Many city employees who are constituents of mine have told me about the difficulties of raising a new family, buying a home and purchasing the basic necessities of life while trying to live in the District.
Some of my colleagues have suggested scrapping our residency law and replacing it with a preferential hiring system. D.C. residents would be given preference if they applied for D.C. government jobs. In the abstract, this concept makes sense. However, being responsible elected officials requires us to examine the practicalities of such a solution.
Of the 41,000 D.C. government employees, only 24,600 actually live in the District. Since the residency law was enacted in 1979, we could only require that new employees be District residents. Should the council decide to remove the residency restriction, I would lose sleep at night worrying about the financial impact of District employees racing to the suburbs. For example, suppose just 25 percent of D.C. employees who are residents decide to move to the suburbs. (I believe a more realistic estimate would be higher, but for the sake of a best-case scenario, let's assume a 25 percent retreat). At an average D.C. income tax burden of $1,499, the revenue loss to the District would be $9.2 million annually. Would the remaining residents of the District support a tax increase to shoulder the burden of a residency flight? I think not.
In a sense, it is demeaning to suggest that the talent for our D.C. government work force cannot be found here. The facts show that the District of Columbia has one of the most educated populations in America. Perhaps our efforts as legislators and community leaders should be focused on improved training programs for those professions with the fewest qualified applicants. The larger problem of the lack of affordable housing is one that requires even more concentrated attention. The residency-requirement stakes are high, and the most important question to answer is whether our city can afford not to have it.
Of course, the ideal solution is obvious. A commuter tax would solve the whole problem.
John A. Wilson is a D.C. Council member from Ward 2.