Home team advantage

Jul 13, 2005 at 12:00 am

Until 1999, people working for the city of Detroit were required to live here. In the six years since the state Legislature outlawed such requirements, about 25 percent of the city’s 18,000 employees have moved out of town.

But when the subject was brought before Detroit’s City Council, it was the racial makeup of a Fire Department recruit class last year, and not the flight of city workers to the suburbs, that prompted the council to consider a countermeasure.

Of the 1,244 applicants who passed the test to become part of the Fire Department’s August 2004 training class, 375 were Detroiters. But only three of those city residents received scores high enough to be included in the 35-person class. Residency wasn’t the only imbalance. Only four of the 35 recruits were African-American.

Why that’s the case is a matter of dispute, with the controversy spilling over into the council’s approval of an ordinance late last month giving an advantage to Detroit residents seeking city jobs.

The so-called “domicile credit,” approved on an 8-0 vote, adds 15 points to the scores of Detroit residents taking civil service tests (scored on a 100-point basis) as part of the application process for city jobs.

It’s an issue that’s particularly important when it comes to the police and fire departments, which have been hardest hit by the suburban exodus. City officials say about 32 percent of Detroit’s cops and 43 percent of its firefighters have left town since the Legislature passed Public Act 212 in 1999. About 25 percent of city workers overall have left, officials say.

“On a state level, the firefighter and police unions campaigned against residency,” Council President Maryann Mahaffey says. “Now we’re saying we think that if you live in the neighborhood you can do a better job of protecting the neighborhood.”

The benefit of having a municipal work force that lives in the town it serves is “kind of a no-brainer,” says Khari Wheeler, president of Detroit Phoenix, an association of African-American firefighters.

“That’s not the end-all be-all panacea to getting good workers, and I’m sure there are some great public safety officers that don’t live in the city,” Wheeler says. “But all things being equal, I would like to have public safety officers that live in Detroit.”

Detroit Police Officers Association President Marty Bandemer disagrees.

“That’s just some bullshit rhetoric that some people want to spew out there,” Bandemer says. “The last four officers killed in the city of Detroit did not come from the city of Detroit, but their commitment and dedication could not be rivaled.”

But Bandemer is not opposed to the domicile credit.

“If they want to give 15 extra points to residents, that’s fine,” he says. “All we ask is that we hire the best and brightest.”

The measure passed by the council was crafted as to head off any legal challenges on the basis it is racially biased.

“We were very careful to draft it in such a way that race is not relevant,” says Dave Whittaker of the council’s research and analysis division. “The whole idea is to provide some benefit for residents in the city, any person who would be a resident in the city would be eligible regardless of race.”

Even so, race is part of the debate. With African-Americans making up more than 80 percent of Detroit’s population, any initiative that favors city residents by its nature disproportionately benefits blacks. But, legally, the city cannot give a hiring preference based on ethnicity.

As far as Wheeler is concerned, the council’s action was too long in coming. Had it been passed sooner, the disproportionately suburban — and white — 2004 class could have looked much different.

The ordinance, Wheeler says, “should’ve been in the works immediately as soon as we realized what was going on in Lansing. We should’ve been coming up with ideas to counter the ultimate effects.”

The state legislation undeniably added to the suburban flight that has been depleting Detroit’s population for the past half-century.

“Lifting the residency requirement allowed a base of population that was stuck in the city to get up and go,” says Kurt Metzger, research director for the Center of Urban Studies at Wayne State University.

The credit, however, is unlikely to significantly affect population numbers. To obtain the credit prospective employees must have lived in the city for 18 months. There’s nothing saying they must continue living in Detroit after employment has been retained.

“It’s an attempt, but it’s kind of hollow,” Metzger says. “I guess it’s the best you can do and at least it’s something.”

Councilmember Sheila Cockrel has a similar take, saying, “At the end of the day, it doesn’t require people to remain as residents. It doesn’t solve the long-term issue.”

Captain Reginald Amos a 32-year veteran of the Fire Department, contends that if the City Council was attempting to address the disproportionate number of whites being selected for the 2004 training class, it failed to take care of what he says is the root problem — which is how the test itself is evaluated.

“We don’t need a crutch,” says Amos, president of Concerned Professional Firefighters, a group formed by African-Americans within the department. “All we need is a level playing field.”

Amos says that there are multiple problems with the exam that led to the disproportionate racial makeup of the class. He has questions about how other bonus points — such as those for military service — were applied, as well as the method used for scoring the tests.

Amos and his group have filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Wheeler, too, says that exam problems led to the disproportionate racial makeup of the 2004 class, and that the Phoenix group is examining the possibilities for legal action.

Detroit’s budget crisis makes layoffs in the department much more of an immediate concern than fair hiring practices, but critics of the testing procedure say that doesn’t negate the need to identify and correct existing problems so that the next time a new group of recruits is selected — whenever that is — it looks a lot more like Detroit than the class of 2004.

“We still have to fight for the principles and the overall big picture so something like this doesn’t happen again,” Wheeler says.

Nancy Kaffer is a Metro Times staff writer. Contact her at 313-202-8068 or at [email protected]