Monica Yant Kinney: The city's line defines workers' lives

Joe McCool, who sued over residency requirements, is passed by a Phila. police officer a block from the Bucks County line. MONICA YANT KINNEY /Staff
Joe McCool, who sued over residency requirements, is passed by a Phila. police officer a block from the Bucks County line. MONICA YANT KINNEY /Staff
Posted: June 14, 2012

Joe McCool isn't exaggerating when he says his house is ground zero for the debate on whether city workers should be allowed to live wherever they want.

McCool's place on Lukens Street sits firmly in Lower Southampton Township, Bucks County. But just over the fence out back and around the corner? Neighbors with Philadelphia addresses — cops, firefighters, prosecutors, judges, and Water Department employees who've chosen to reside at the absolute tip of Somerton because it's as close as they can get to suburbia.

"My property line," explains McCool "is the county line."

The retired city firefighter invited me to tour the neighborhood after reading about the slow pace of Philadelphia police officers leaving the city now that they have the right to move anywhere in Pennsylvania. We agree that the sluggish real estate market has hampered an exodus. And conventional wisdom says cops (and firefighters) would prefer to live at the Jersey Shore.

Residents of the leafy enclave dubbed "Olde Somerton" enjoy a quality of life that feels so suburban, McCool doesn't expect his neighbors to bolt. But he wonders if a new generation of city workers will even stop to plant roots here given the benefits of his zip code (19053) vs. theirs (19116).

"When it snows, my street gets plowed by 5 a.m.," he brags.

"I brought my Jeep home one night in a storm," recalls Philadelphia Police Sgt. Tom Bullick, "and got stuck a block from my house."

Spoils of suburbia

At the intersection of County Line Road and Lukens, McCool, 60, explains how neighbors easily got a stop sign placed on the Lower Southampton side. Danger remains on the Philadelphia corner.

Both sections get weekly trash pickup, but the suburbanites also have yard waste removal.

"Nutter cut that out, so now they bag it and treat it like trash," McCool shares. "Lower South does the environmentally correct thing."

Jury duty requires a drive to Doylestown, but is otherwise a breeze. Calls to officials — like Supervisor John McMenamin, another former Philly firefighter — are respectfully returned.

As we walk, I learn that local children are identifiable by attire. Somerton students wear uniforms to parochial or private education. "Over here," McCool says, "everybody goes to public school." Except this week, since Neshaminy teachers are striking.

Run to the border

Bullick says he knows a few officers who moved to Montgomery County, but others — like him — enjoy their city life enough to wait.

"You can buy your next house cheap, but you'd lose selling on the way out," he worries. "The guy who wins is the young one coming out of an apartment," like Bullick's son, a Temple University police officer who bypassed city living and bought a split-level in Langhorne.

If only McCool's kid was as lucky.

"My son works for the District Attorney's Office," he grumbles. "He's got to live in the same place as the people he puts away."

For now, but maybe not forever.

No one from the firefighters union would say whether they, too, will demand to move, but McCool threw them a lifeline. After he retired, he had a change of heart, retook the exam, and waited to be rehired. When his number came up, he was denied a job even though he promised to move back.

In 2006, McCool filed a federal lawsuit alleging Philadelphia's residency rules violated the constitutional right to travel freely. In a lively hearing, the judge poked holes in the city's defense of forced habitation as a means of retaining a taxpaying middle class. In 2008, Philadelphia quietly paid McCool $145,000 to settle.

McCool is too modest to take credit for weakening the city's grip, but his lawyer, Tom Bruno, agrees the case could be a road map for others wanting to pull up stakes.

" I don't know if we paved the way," Bruno says, "but we were the snowball rolling down the hill."

Contact Monica Yant Kinney at 215-854-4670, myant@phillynews.com, or follow @myantkinney on Twitter. Read her blog at philly.com/blinq.

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