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Council mulls 10-mile residency rule for Marion city employees

Contributing Writer
updated: 12/12/2019 11:57 PM

MARION -- Expanding the 10-mile radius from City Hall to 20 miles as a residency requirement for Marion city employees was the major topic of discussion at Monday's regular council meeting.

Public Health and Safety Commissioner John M. Barwick Jr., who introduced the measure, said the 10-mile residency requirement is hampering the Marion Police Department's ability to hire qualified officers.

Pushing the radius out to 20 miles would open Marion up to a deeper pool of trained law-enforcement officers, and save the city money, Barwick reasoned.

Within the 10-mile radius, there are fewer candidates, and most need to be academy trained, which takes six to eight months, at a cost to the MPD of $5,000 to $6,000. And, if the prospective officer gets injured in training, or washes out of the academy, the city is out of that money, Barwick added.

Police Chief David Fitts said expanding the residency radius would boost recruitment of new officers and retention of those on the force.

Fitts said the last round of testing for new MPD officers had only 15 apply and nine actually taking the test. Only two passed. Some years ago, there would be 50 to 60 applicants taking the test.

"That is not acceptable," Fitts said. "It is getting harder and harder to find good, qualified people."

Barwick said that the MPD has interviewed officers who were well-qualified but unwilling to uproot their families and give up their homes just because they lived 12, 15 or 20 miles from City Hall.

Fitts, former district commander with the Illinois State Police in Du Quoin, said the ISP has upped its recruitment efforts and lowered the education requirement from a bachelor's to an associate degree.

In comparison to Marion's 10-mile rule, the ISP requires their officers to live within 30 minutes driving time from their district headquarters, Fitts said.

"As a result, a lot of departments are losing officers to the ISP, including us," Fitts said.

Mayor Mike Absher said he was concerned about the take-home policy for MPD officers and their squad cars, and that having officers drive further would increase the wear and tear on the vehicles.

Fitts said the MPD has officers take their police cars home so that they will be able to respond immediately to emergency situations. Also, the MPD headquarters doesn't have enough parking to accommodate both personal and police vehicles.

"People will ask, 'why do we want to see our police cars in other towns?' Well, they already are," Fitts said.

Barwick added that the positives of extending the radius outweighed the negatives.

Other commissioners were concerned about how other city employees would react to the residency requirement being changed for just the police department.

"I am concerned with how this looks to other city employees," said Account and Finance Commissioner Doug Patton. "Why do we say yes to the police and no to the other employees?"

However, Patton said he wanted to carefully consider the issue.

Absher said that for other departments, such as the Street Department, the pool of workers is deeper, as they don't require the level of training that police officers go through.

Commissioner Jim Webb was initially behind the idea of opening up the residency requirements for police and firefighters, while John Stoecklin said the radius should be widened for all departments.

City Attorney Wendy Cunningham said the move wouldn't be easy to reverse. "Once you do this, you'll never get it back," she said.

Polled again by Absher, the commissioners Webb, Stoecklin and Barwick said they were in favor of relaxing residency requirements for all departments. Patton was also in favor, but wanted to discuss the matter further with the city attorney.