Opinion

Obligations of public employees in Federal Way | Editorial

The Federal Way community employs approximately 3,000 publicly-funded workers. These employees range from police to teachers to the water engineers at Lakehaven Utility District.

Most of these public employees give an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.

However, do these employees have an obligation to the community that extends beyond their work hours?

For example, should public employees be encouraged, or even required, to live in the community that pays their salaries? While elected officials such as the mayor are required to live in their community, no such requirement exists for non-elected positions such as the police chief or fire chief, department directors or even the superintendent of Federal Way Public Schools.

In addition to having to “eat their own cooking,” requiring employees to live in Federal Way has an economic impact. For sake of discussion, let’s assume the 20 highest-paid public employees average $150,000 each (salary and benefits). If required to live in the community, their $3 million in income could purchase nearly $10 million worth of residential real estate.

Combined with the additional retail spending, this would provide a small, but measurable, impact on Federal Way’s economy and tax revenues.

On the flip side, requiring employees to live in Federal Way could limit the potential talent pool for key positions because not everyone wants to live in Federal Way (too bad for them).

Alternatively, some public employees have financial or family restraints that could prevent them from moving. We must also consider that other local governments may follow our lead, requiring their employees who live in Federal Way to move out of town.

Economics aside, do high-paid public employees have an obligation to the community beyond their stated job duties? Would you support a requirement that public employees be required to live in the community where they are employed? Or do you believe these entities should be conducted as a business by hiring the most experienced and suitable people for the positions, regardless of where they live?

There is a state law, RCW 35.21.200, that deals with this issue. Through an ordinance, Federal Way can establish residency requirements for future employees (current employees are exempt).

We feel that, at a minimum, there should be a residency requirement for all Federal Way employees who are department heads and/or direct reports to the mayor or city council, along with deputy department heads and their direct reports.

This could be a great incentive to the people who directly deal with the public to take the “service” aspects of their jobs to the next level.

Indeed, such a residency policy could in some cases be a hardship or become a barrier to obtaining the best talent. The ordinance could allow the city council, for example, to approve exceptions on a case by case basis for specified reasons — e.g., the prospective employee needs to live in another community to treat a sick child.

There may be a number of legitimate exceptions, carefully crafted, and could include a competitive factor — e.g., the candidate is unwilling to move and his/her skills are not adequately obtainable from other candidates.

Your tax dollars are paying for city employees, school district employees, fire employees and more. Perhaps it’s time to give them a fuller stake in the community they serve.

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