By Eugene Kane Senior Writer and Columnist Published Apr 11, 2013 at 1:05 PM

No doubt about it.

There are lots of things to complain about in Milwaukee. But thankfully, we're not Detroit. Yet.

I say that not to inflame any transplants or natives of the Motor City who might currently live in Milwaukee.

After our miserable stretch of local weather lately, we can't really put on airs with anybody.

But due to the ongoing battles about abolishing residency requirements in Wisconsin for most municipal employees, the spectre of Detroit has been ominously raised time and time again.

Whenever some city official wants to sound the alarm why residency rules are important to sustain the economic and social life of the city, someone brings up Detroit.

Like Mayor Tom Barrett, for example, who used the frequently used comparison to send home his opposition to a proposal by Gov. Scott Walker to end residency requirements in the latest state budget.

Barrett talked about the decline of Detroit as a warning for anybody who thought residency requirements for city workers wouldn't have much negative  impact. But Walker doubled down with comments that Milwaukee really wanted to convince people to live and work there, it should be a great city.

Fighting words. But when it comes to Detroit, it's more like "slighting words."

Don't worry; no doubt the folks in Detroit are used to it.

Over the last 50 years, most reports say Detroit has lost half of its population – more than a million people – to the suburbs or other places. From a time when the city rose to be an automotive juggernaut during the 1950s and 1960s, it's become a shell of a major American city with lots of negative indicators in housing, unemployment and small businesses.

Many residents point to the decision 10 years ago by Detroit city officials to lift the residency requirement for city workers, including police and firemen as the beginning of a decline that has continued unabated.

One study found that more than half of the city's police officers now live outside the city while residents in low-income neighborhoods with consistent crime problems claim they get routinely ignored because the officers don't have any real attachment to the area.

Others say Detroit's problems aren't solely tied to residency rules being abolished; they cite issues like high taxes, corruption in local government, escalating crime and other quality of life items that have contributed to the exodus of residents regardless of the rule change.

Rochelle Riley, a metro columnist for the Detroit Free Press, told me despite all the other contributing factors, whenever some people in her city discuss the  root causes for the overall decline in recent years, they still cite the abolition of residency laws.

"It's a big issue here," she said. "Some council members believe because the cops don't live here, there is no buy-in to protect neighborhoods. And that huge population loss that Detroit suffered? Worst in the nation?

"A lot of those folks were city workers who felt they were finally free."

As the debate over Walker's proposed ban on residency requirements for city workers and teachers continues, many police and fire organizations are supporting the measure as a good move for their members. Curiously, some Republicans in the state are voicing the same opposition to Walker's proposed residency ban as Barrett because they think it's an issue of local control.

Lots of people on both sides still wondering why Walker put it in the budget instead of just letting people decide. During an advisory referendum vote last week, most residents in Milwaukee thought there was no need to change the rule.

The opposing principles are interesting: Should people have the right to live where they want or can an employer dictate those terms in an open society?

Detroit made its decision about a decade ago. By many accounts, it turned out good for some but bad for the city overall.

Which is why you whenever you hear comparisons between Detroit and Milwaukee about residency rules, it's usually not a compliment.  

Eugene Kane Senior Writer and Columnist

Eugene Kane is veteran Milwaukee journalist and nationally award winning columnist.

Kane writes about a variety of important issues in Milwaukee and society that impact residents of all backgrounds.