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County lifts residency restriction

Commission throws out policy that demanded public employees live and work among taxypayers
News Editor
   June 4, 2003 — Public workers employed by Jefferson County now have the freedom to live anywhere they choose, the commission ruled last week.
    The county will abandon its long-held residency requirement, but the commissioners agreed to maintain it for department heads, their highest-paid employees.
    The decision came Thursday after some lively discussion during the monthly department directors’ meeting, where one employee compared the residency requirement to the wall that once separated communist East Germany from West Germany.
    “It’s almost anti-American to say you have to live here,” Juvenile Department Director Matthew Birnie told the commissioners.
    The commissioners apparently heeded those sentiments, voting 3-0 to do away with the requirement, but not before hearing considerable discussion among their top employees.
    “The fact is I don’t want to play God with anybody,” Commission Chairman Walt Ponsford said.
    The residency requirement, intended to help retain qualified public employees by compelling them to live among the taxpayers who provide their salaries, has been the subject of controversy for some time.
    Some department heads said the residency rule had lost its purpose because it was not being enforced fairly.
    Others complained it limited their ability to recruit top talent.
    Ten of the government’s roughly 180 employees have successfully received variances to live outside of Jefferson County, Human Resources Assistant Moira “Scottie” Miller said.
    Of those, three have not yet completed their probationary period. County Administrator Mike Morgan said the residency requirement might once have had a purpose, but that purpose had passed.
    “Anytime we grant a variance, we make it seem subjective,” Morgan said.
    Commissioner Bill Bellamy expressed similar sentiments concerning the process of granting exceptions.
    “We’re sticking our noses into people’s businesses,” he said.
    Jerry Street, director of the county’s health department, said lifting the requirement could greatly benefit public health.
    Some of his employees already have variances. Doing away with the residency will make it easier to recruit qualified employees, Street said.
    “Let’s face it, the professional pool is not here in Madras and Jefferson County,” he said.
    District Attorney Peter Deuel concurred, telling the story of an attorney who once called him after failing to show up for a job interview.
    “He said, ‘I just drove in and I couldn’t come to the interview,’” Deuel said, noting that the attorney realized he didn’t want to live in Madras.
    But some department heads raised concerns about lifting the requirement.
    Sheriff Jack Jones said he hoped county employees would chose not to invest in other communities “on the back of the taxpayers of Jefferson County.”
    “There’s something to be said about dancing with the girl that (brought) you,” Jones said. Nevertheless, Jones said he was confident deputies working for the sheriff’s office would not live elsewhere.
    Clint Jacks, director of the OSU Extension Office, said the county should still make an effort to hire employees who will be civically engaged with Jefferson County.
    “If we have two applicants that are equal, we need to take the one that’s going to live in the county,” Jacks said.
    Bellamy said qualified employees still will chase higher salaries in neighboring Deschutes County and elsewhere despite any residency requirement.
    Ponsford added that the commission’s goal should be to try to change that in a means other than compulsion.
    “I think our job is to make this county better so nobody goes south,” Ponsford said.