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Government, Politics & Issues

St. Clair County Sheriff's Request To Relax Residency Rule For Deputies Rankles Kern

St. Clair County Courthouse in downtown Belleville, Illinois in May 2020. County Sheriff Rick Watson wants to ease a residency rule that requires deputies live in the county, but Chairman Mark Kern says taxpayer-funded employees should live within the county.
File Photo / Derik Holtmann
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Belleville News-Democrat
St. Clair County Courthouse in downtown Belleville in May 2020. County Sheriff Rick Watson wants to ease a residency rule that requires deputies live in the county, but County Board Chairman Mark Kern says taxpayer-funded employees should live within the county.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

A residency requirement for St. Clair County sheriff’s deputies may be making it difficult to attract new officers, but County Board Chairman Mark Kern says changing the rule would be unfair to taxpayers.

Chief Deputy Thomas Knapp told the county’s public safety committee that Sheriff Rick Watson would like the county board to reconsider the rule, which requires that sheriffs live in St. Clair County.

New hires must move to the county within six months of beginning work at the department, per the residency requirement.

But Knapp, who spoke on behalf of the sheriff at the meeting, said the residency requirement stifles the recruitment of new hires.

“The reason behind this — as you might imagine — is recruitment of law enforcement these days is kind of tough,” Knapp said, suggesting the requirement could be altered to allow people who live within a certain number of miles of the county line to work at the department.

Watson told the BND on Tuesday that the current climate in the U.S. means new hires aren’t lining up at the door for any of the department’s open positions, whether it be for patrol, at the jail or any other positions. He said, so far, the department has been lucky, but he foresees it becoming more and more difficult to find qualified hires.

In a May 2021 U.S. News and World Report article, police officials from across the country called the slowing recruitment of new officers and a surging amount of retirements a “crisis” for law enforcement.

“People are not looking at law enforcement like they used to and in order to secure good applicants, we’re going to have to broaden our horizons,” Watson said. “There’s going to come a day when people don‘t want to move — where they’d like to work here but they don’t want to move.”

Kern, who was in attendance at the committee meeting, spoke out strongly against the proposed rule change. He said allowing employees to live outside of the county where their salaries are being paid by taxpayers is a “bad policy.”

“It’s a bad policy because our taxes pay their salaries,” he said. “St. Clair County is big enough. We’re not dealing with a small area here, we’re dealing with a county with 260,000 people.”

Kern said there are plenty of homes in a wide price range available to anyone who wants to work for the county.

“There’s no reason why someone can’t find a way to live here after six months.”

Watson understands the pushback from Kern, but said there need to be discussions about easing the rule in order to prepare for a future where finding qualified candidates becomes more difficult. He said it may become especially difficult to hire for specialized positions at the department in the future if the rule isn’t eased.

Watson stressed that the county needs to “think outside the box” and look toward other local law enforcement agencies that have eased their residency rules as well.

“This is going to become a problem. I always try to look down the road and that’s what I’m doing right now,” he said. “I’m not trying to create a political storm, I’m just trying to say we need to start thinking about this because I see a problem on the horizon.”

The Belleville Police Department recently did away with their residency requirement for the same reason, a fact Knapp mentioned at the committee meeting Monday night. Previously, Belleville required some of its full-time employees to relocate to the city within 15 months of starting work.

The city council voted unanimously to relax those requirements for nonunion and non-appointed employees. New hires must still relocate to the city, but the timeline has been extended to 18 months instead of 15.

County Board Member Jerry Dinges, who chairs the county’s public safety committee, said a sub-committee should be formed. Kern, however, bristled once again.

“I wouldn’t,” Kern said of the sub-committee.

Dinges said the committee would take the sheriff’s request under consideration.

Kavahn Mansouri is a reporter and editor with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

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