Richard Thompson needs a job. Actually, he'd like his old job back, but at the moment he's not feeling very picky. On September 25th, less than a month after the birth of his first child, Ari Elise, Thompson was suspended from his corporate communications position at Memphis Light, Gas and Water. A week later, Thompson was terminated for failure to comply with the ordinance requiring all city employees to live within the Memphis city limits.
A letter to Thompson from MLGW explained that his apartment in the city and his home in the county had been observed on numerous occasions, and it was determined that Thompson functionally resided in county. With his termination, Thompson became both an indirect casualty of a bad economy and a prism through which to observe a complex and controversial public policy.
Thompson case is instructive, because every party appears to be acting in good faith, and because everybody is losing something in the process. Thompson lost his job. MLGW lost a gifted, motivated communicator, whose relentless blogging on his website, Memphis-Mediaverse, has made the former Commercial Appeal reporter something of a local online celebrity.
Thompson says fallout from the residency policy has created a new class of worker. "I'm a part of what I call the duffel-bag class," Thompson says — city employees who have homes outside the city limits they can't sell. They are forced to either give up their jobs or rent homes in the city limits and live there the majority of the time. Thompson rented and lived in an apartment near downtown, while he and his wife April attempted to sell their home in Southeast Shelby County. He spent weekends with his wife in the county, until near the end of her pregnancy.
"It wasn't fair for her to have to do everything by herself," Thompson says. "I needed to be there to help."
The Thompsons have been trying to sell their home since Richard became an MLGW employee in October 2007. Thompson had been unemployed for nearly a year before that, and although April worked as a jazzersize instructor, the couple's financial situation had deteriorated drastically from since they purchased the 1,400-square-foot house nine years ago.
Shortly after starting his MLGW job, Thompson contacted Crye-Leike agent LaQuita Rucker. The housing market was bottoming out, and his house, a contemporary brick structure on Royce Cove between Germantown Road and Shelby Drive, wasn't in good condition. But the Thompsons encouraged Rucker to mention their home to potential buyers to help them get a feel for how much work the house needed. In July of 2008, the house officially went on the market, a month after an MLGW residency audit identified Thompson and 31 other MLGW employees who appeared to reside outside the city limits.
According to MLGW spokesperson Chris Stanley, the utility's residency policy is adapted directly from the ordinance requiring city employees to live within Memphis city limits. "As of their hire date, they have six months to move their residency in order to be in compliance with the ordinance and our policy," he says. Each employee hired now receives a copy of the policy in writing and signs a letter agreeing to abide by the residency requirements upon accepting employment.
"There are periodic checks done by our human resources department to ensure employees are abiding by the ordinance and policy," Stanley says. "Employees found not to be in compliance are notified of the results of the investigation and have the chance to prove otherwise.
"Unfortunately, there is nothing MLGW can do to change the ordinance or policy because of slow economic times," Stanley adds. He says he's not sure how many employees have had trouble selling their houses.
Glen Thomas, MLGW's supervisor of communications, says, "It is the company's responsibility to investigate any reports of policy violation, whether it be residency or something else."
Thompson admits that it could be unnerving to think that your employer might be surveiling you, but, he adds, "I can't be mad at MLGW, because I see both sides of this." He says it's important for a city that makes so much of its revenue from property taxes to consider the value of a strong residency requirement.
In a blog post from October 2008, Thompson wrote that "history, home rule, policy, and the undeniable will of the electorate, [makes it] hard to form a contrarian position" against the residency requirement. In that post, he linked to a newspaper article quoting Crye-Leike co-founder Bob Leike, who worried that a significant change in home sales "may not be seen until after the elections and the holidays." Leike said the real estate industry was certainly headed for better times, but cautioned, "I just don't know if it's going to be at the beginning of the year or mid-year." Thompson responded to Leike's comments in his post, writing, "I have a Crye-Leike agent selling my house. Sigh."
Every telephone conversation Thompson has with his real estate agent ends in a heavy sigh. "Someone else wants to see the house," he says. "And I can tell you right now what's going to happen: The house will be just what the person is looking for, until they walk into the bathroom and see there's no Jacuzzi tub. Then they won't be interested anymore. And all the getting ready will be for nothing." Thompson has a substantial list of prospective buyers who've made an appointment to see the house but didn't bite. "Sometimes, you'll get a call on short notice because somebody wants to see the house right away. It can be a lot of work for nothing."
Rucker says she is optimistic that home sales are finally starting to improve, but adds, "Everybody knows that the market has been terrible." According to Rucker, it has been especially hard for homeowners such as the Thompsons, because of all the homes in bank-owned foreclosure. Rucker runs through a list of several bank-owned properties near Thompson's home. Most are twice the size of his house, but have sold for $40,000 less than what the Royce Cove property cost the Thompsons nine years ago. "That's what these houses are selling for. These are facts," she says.
Thompson notes that some of the larger bank-owned properties in and around his neighborhood have barely been lived in. He has no idea how to compete, having already dropped the asking price for his house from $125,000 to $110,000, the same price he and his wife paid for the property in 2000.
"When I started working on Richard's house, I thought it would sell inside of 30 days. And I've usually got a good feeling for these sorts of things," Rucker says. "But it's been well over a year now." In the meantime Thompson keeps compiling lists of who's viewed his house and collecting testimony from neighbors who'll vouch that he's only been a part-time resident in his own home. And he keeps taking his appeal to MLGW.
"The prevailing counter-argument in regards to the residency requirement is the need for flexibility," Thompson wrote on his blog in 2008, noting that police and fire departments had been calling out for "flexibility and leniency in light of the challenge of recruiting new employees."
MLGW's Thomas doesn't think the law allows the public utility to be flexible. "I think it's important to remember that this is more than an MLGW policy; it is a law that was voted into effect by the people of Memphis," he says. "MLGW follows the ordinance language verbatim with respect to the passage that one must 'live and maintain residence' within the city limits. The ordinance language does not provide flexibility."
Thomas says the law doesn't allow for much room to work with employees, no matter what additional problems they might be dealing with. "New hires must accept the residency policy as a condition of employment," he says. "If an employee is truly complying with the residency policy, in that they live at and maintain a residence within the city limits, then spending time elsewhere for whatever circumstance would likely not be an issue."
Thompson's situation is looking up. Within weeks of his termination, he found a buyer for his house. The closing is scheduled for November 30th, and he's keeping his fingers crossed that nothing will go wrong. "We feel really confident that everything will work out. It's the culmination of months of work and prayer," he says.
In the meantime, he's still renting his room downtown, trying to convince MLGW that they got it wrong and hoping they'll restore his employment status. "Once the sale is completed, I plan to end my rental agreement, because we'll be able to consolidate our residences into one that works for our whole family," he says.
"I've lost 80 percent of my total household income," Thompson says. His wife, who closed her jazzercise studio during her pregnancy, also has been unemployed while pursuing a teaching certificate at Christian Brothers University.
Thompson contends that he has been a victim of a bad economy and of worse timing; that if MLGW had conducted its investigation before the end of his wife's pregnancy, the result would have been different. The human resources investigators would have seen him living in the city five days a week and only returning to the county on weekends.
In spite of everything, Thompson seems grateful to MLGW officials for having been as understanding as they've been.
There are others, such as Tom Jones of Smart City Consulting, who think the residency policy is misguided and counter-productive for the city. Jones, a former county employee, has addressed residency issues on his Smart City Memphis blog. He says, "The big problem is that Memphis needs talent wherever it can find it. Legislative bodies that can't even control the residency of their own members seem drawn to these kinds of one size fits all policies because they think they are politically popular.
"In reality, they are either unenforceable or they put government into the onerous role of Big Brother spying on employees," Jones continues. "There should be middle ground."
Jones notes that nearby cities don't have residency requirements. According to Jones, one HR director said, "Our people deserve the best, wherever we can find them."