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Residency rule gets in the way of efforts to hire a city engineer in Niagara Falls

The desire of public officials to fill positions with people who live in their city, town or village is understandable – municipal workers add value to the community they live in.

But strict residency rules can become impractical when trying to fill a specialized position in a small municipality.

Such is the case in the City of Niagara Falls, with a population not much over 50,000. Mayor Paul A. Dyster is struggling to fill the city engineer position.

It’s been a yearslong slog in trying to find someone to fill the post, even though the salary, when the job was posted in January, stood at $95,500 per year.

The mayor and other civic leaders are attempting to promote the type of resurgence occurring in neighboring Buffalo. To the extent that there are new hotels, new housing developments and a $41 million International Transportation and Railway Station opening in a few months, things are happening.

Dyster would like to engage a city engineer on these and other projects. But finding a qualified candidate is made more difficult because of a requirement that all city employees must live in the city.

The city engineer job requires a bachelor’s degree in engineering, five years of experience in engineering and project management and a license to practice as a professional engineer in New York.

The most recent city engineer, Jeffrey Skurka, was fired in 2013 and sued the city the following year for the return of his job and to collect $150,000 in lost pay and benefits. His lawsuit remains unsettled.

The mayor said the city conducted searches in 2014 and reopened the search again in January. The 2014 search yielded 13 applicants and five were interviewed. The two strongest candidates withdrew due to the residency requirement, according to the mayor.

In addition to the stringent credentials required, the city engineer serves at the pleasure of the mayor. That means anyone taking the job would have to move into the city and then face the possibility of losing the post after the next election.

Dyster did not exaggerate the problem when he told the Council that the candidate pool was “extremely limited” as a result of the residency requirement. This is clearly a case where an exception to the rule is appropriate, and the City Council should waive the residency requirement.