New city hires have 6 months to move to New Orleans under law

New city hires will have to move to New Orleans within 180 days of beginning their employment if they do not already live here, and existing employees cannot move out of the city under an ordinance passed on Thursday.

The City Council voted 7-0 to approve the amended legislation, known as the “city domicile ordinance,” despite pleas from the city’s police and fire unions to drop it or exclude first responders from the policy.

The ordinance, authored by City Council President Stacy Head and introduced Feb. 21, reinstitutes a law that was on the books for decades but was waived following Hurricane Katrina. Its suspension ended Jan. 1.

The ordinance requires that any new hire must be domiciled in Orleans Parish within six months on the job, with domicile meaning a location where the person is registered to vote and “sleeps, takes his meals, has established his household, and surrounds himself with his family and the comforts of home.” Voters registered in another parish or county are considered to be domiciled outside of New Orleans.

That, according to Raymond Burkhart III, an attorney with the local Fraternal Order of Police, limits the number of candidates for openings on the New Orleans Police Department and hurts retention.

Nick Felton, president of the firefighters’ union, said he had “grave” concerns about the “divisive” issue and said that when people are faced with a crisis, they do not care where a first responder lives, only that help is coming.

Burkhart noted that the place where an officer lives does not affect how he or she does a job. He said that Officer John Passaro, who was shot last month while responding to a report of a robbery at a Bywater store, lives in Slidell but still did his job well.

Becky Benelli, the volunteer coordinator for New Orleans Emergency Medical Services and a former officer agreed, saying that the city’s paramedics also were against the ordinance.

“It doesn’t matter where you live,” she said. She added that she worried that not only could the candidate pool shrink, the ordinance could seclude New Orleans from the rest of the metro area.

“At the end of the day, there is no reason for this domicile ordinance,” Burkhart told the council. “It should be repealed.”

Any police officer or fire recruit who does not move to the city within 180 days of beginning work must repay the city for his or her training. For a police officer that could cost between $45,000 and $50,000; a fire recruit costs about $40,000 to train.

While there was much public discussion about the ordinance, there also was much discussion among council members before they voted on it.

An amendment District B Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell introduced initially would have prohibited existing employees who live outside of the city from moving to another home outside of New Orleans, meaning that employee would have to move into the parish. It also would have prevented any employee who lives outside of Orleans Parish from being promoted or accepting a raise unless he or she moved into the city within 180 days of that job change or pay increase.

Cantrell introduced a modified amendment that did away with the latter requirement, but that amendment failed 1-6, with Cantrell as the only council member voting in its favor.

The ordinance as passed allows existing employees to keep living outside of the city, even if an employee moves to a new home.

The series of amendments the council ultimately approved 7-0 were authored by Head. Those changes, however, were modified to include an amendment from District D Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell that requires existing city employees to continue living in the city, unless the chief administrative officer grants a waiver.

“I just want to close the loophole,” Hedge-Morrell said. “You can’t move out of New Orleans.”

The council voted 6-1 to approve Hedge-Morrell’s amendment, with Head voting against it. The council voted 7-0 to approve an amendment from Councilwoman Susan Guidry that rephrased an exemption status for part-time employees, who are not required to live in the city.

In addition to new regular city employees, the ordinance also requires new members of all boards, commissions and other public agencies, including the Sewerage & Water Board, New Orleans Aviation Board, Public Belt Railroad Commission, the Audubon Park Commission and public agencies that use civil service employees or receive city money, such as courts, to live in the parish.

Aviation Board employees, who work at Armstrong International Airport, would not be required to live in New Orleans if their home is closer to the airport than to the city.

Ultimately any city employee can ask the chief administrative officer for a waiver to the ordinance. Those waivers can only be issued on a case-by-case basis and with a showing of “extreme hardship” on the employee’s part.

That aspect is something Mayor Mitch Landrieu asked the council to reconsider, according to a letter he wrote to the members on March 4. Rather than allow any employee the opportunity to request a domicile waiver, Landrieu wanted that limited to part-time employees who might not be able to afford to move to the city.

Eric Granderson, an aide to the mayor, on Monday told the council’s Governmental Affairs Committee that the administration would work with the council on that matter.

The mayor also has power under the ordinance to suspend any or all parts of the domicile law through an executive order during a state of emergency as defined by the city charter.

Ryan Berni, a Landrieu spokesman, on Thursday afternoon said the administration supported the changes.

“We have placed emphasis on local participation in contracts and employment where city funds are used,” Berni wrote in an email. “... We believe the city’s domicile law needs to be consistent with an extension of this policy, and the revisions passed with our support today still do that.”