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As Topeka struggles to fill city positions, some ask if residency requirements or salaries are to blame



TOPEKA, Kan. – The position was eventually filled after an employee got the proper license and work in the field for two years to meet the minimum requirements.

City staff  members told the Policy and Finance committee on May 7 other stories of job openings with zero applications and struggling to find qualified people. The committee is reviewing Topeka’s hiring woes to see what can be done to spur interest in the position.

One potential solution? Loosening the guidelines for the city’s residency requirements.

Council member Spencer Duncan said the Policy and Finance Committee began a fact-finding mission to see why it struggles to fill some positions and whether better pay or looser residency requirements might be the solution.

The committee hasn’t proposed to change requirements, and Duncan did say Topeka wants to keep its hires as local as possible.

Duncan said he is torn on residency requirements. He said he has one vocal critic with a strong opinion on the matter: his mother.

“My own mother has told me she thinks everyone who works for the city needs to live in the city,” Duncan said. “I don’t disagree with her, but we are going to go down the path and see what comes out of it.”

City of Topeka looks at input from almost applicants

The city sends surveys to people who abandoned their applications, or started an application but didn’t finish, and found that 36.4% of the responses list residency and not wanting to move as reasons to not apply to the job.

From 2017-2021, there were 82 completed applications where people indicated they don’t want to move to Shawnee County. Those 82 applications make a small portion of the thousands of completed applications in that same timeframe, said Jacque Russell, director of Topeka’s Human Resources department.

“Some of these positions are kind of specialized positions where we don’t have large candidate pools compared to some of the more clerical positions,” she said.

Russell said employees who completed exit interviews cited residency as a reason they left their jobs 12.2% of the time since 2018.

Currently, Topeka requires that city employees either pay taxes, be registered to vote or have their name on property inside county limits. Duncan said there is support to keep residency requirements for police chiefs, fire chiefs and department heads even if requirements change for others.

Looking for answers from Lawrence

Changing residency requirements could attract a larger, more diverse talent pool, which is why Lawrence’s City Commission voted 4-1 in favor of loosening residency requirements, said Porter Arneill, communications and creative resources director for the city of Lawrence.

After the vote, only the Lawrence city manager has residency restrictions.

Arneill said the decision to change requirements came before some department head positions opened up. City staff told the commission at its March 2 meeting they are hoping looser requirements will lead to a more diverse candidate pool.

Arneill said no new department heads have been hired since the vote, and it’s too early to determine if the decision has expanded access.

“Part of the intention behind this is that we know that residency requirements can place a burden on people who are not able to access the cultural resources they need to live comfortably in our community,” he said.

Lawrence’s vote didn’t come without criticism. Adam Luke, a speaker during the public comment period, said people “living in privilege” and coming into Lawrence for work “feels kind of gross.”

Topeka residents will be able to weigh in

Duncan said the committee is also reviewing residency requirements for a larger, more diverse pool of candidates but has heard concerns about people making decisions for Topekans while not living in the city. Future policy and finance committee meetings will allow the public to comment on any proposals, he said.

Duncan said he was born in Topeka and moved back after temporarily moving away. He said Topeka is a good enough city to attract and retain talented employees.

“We have a problem,” Duncan said. “How do we expand the hiring net and ensure that we get good people?”