Record high ratings go to county staff members for their responsiveness to the public
Although 97% of the 800 respondents to the 2017 Sarasota County Citizen Opinion Survey rated their quality of life “good” or “excellent,” the percentage citing the latter declined from 59% in 2016 to 47% this year, Susan A, MacManus, a Distinguished Professor at the University of South Florida (USF), reported to the County Commission on Aug. 29.
The survey is handled by USF’s Institute of Government.
As for the most important issue facing the county: For the fourth year in a row, “population growth/new development” took the top spot, as noted by 23% of respondents, MacManus said in presenting her annual report.
“Taxes” was in second place (8%), followed by “Homelessness,” “Crime” and “Economy/Jobs,” all tied at 5%, she continued. “Water,” “Health Care” and “Diversity” rounded out the responses from 58% of the people interviewed, the survey’s Executive Summary notes.
“We ask people an open-ended question,” she told the commissioners, explaining how the survey handles the overall topic. The answers are then translated into specific categories.
The biggest change in views on that topic from 2016 was the gain in the percentage of people mentioning “Taxes,” she added; in 2016, the figure was 5%. However, MacManus said, such a shift is not uncommon in the survey following a period when property values have been climbing, leading to higher ad valorem taxes.
The Executive Summary notes that the number of people responding “Traffic/Transportation” declined from 6% in 2016 to 3% this year.
The categories regarding county officials’ responsive achieved the highest ratings overall, MacManus pointed out. The survey found “a very, very high satisfaction level,” she said.
Respondents reporting that they were treated with respect hit the 99% mark; 95% said they were given correct information — up 9% from the 2016 level; and 93% said they received help in a timely manner, a 6% increase year-over-year.
“I’m sure you would join me in applauding the people who work for the county who make these things happen,” MacManus told the board. “These are record level figures. In the history of doing this survey, we have never seen these kinds of ratings.”
Commissioner Nancy Detert said she wanted to compliment County Administrator Tom Harmer. “The outstanding thing that you pointed out, that’s almost unheard-of,” she told McManus, “is that 99% of our people feel they’re treated with respect. And I think that that mood comes from the top down, and it starts with Mr. Harmer and filters through all our employees, that this is the way we treat people here.”
“The culture has changed significantly in the last four or five years,” Commissioner Charles Hines said in describing how Harmer and his staff work “with our constituents.” The administration and employees “have listened to this board” and previous boards, Hines added, who called for them to be responsive to the public.
Commissioner Alan Maio noted that Assistant County Administrator Jonathan Lewis — whom the board named on Aug. 21 to be interim administrator effective when Harmer decamps to the Town of Longboat Key in early December — was sitting in the back of the room. Maio joked of Lewis, “[He] needs to beat these figures in future years.”
This is the 23rd year of the survey, MacManus pointed out, commending the board members for their willingness not only to have such a large number of residents surveyed but also for requesting trend-line analyses of answers. “A snapshot is not a whole picture.”
Chair Paul Caragiulo told her he believes the survey “provides an invaluable tool when it comes to planning. … We really can’t be stuck in this snapshot in time and expectation.”
The polling was done May 8-28, MacManus said; the average amount of time to complete the survey was 9.3 minutes.
Digging in more deeply
Moving on to the question about what the greatest fiscal stress is on households, the report showed that general household-related finances was the top answer (15%), followed by taxes — with property taxes cited by 10% of respondents and general taxes by 7%; health care costs (8%); and personal debt (5%).
More significantly, she pointed out, is the fact that “two-thirds of your county does say that they are experiencing some fiscal stress.”
However, she continued, “aggregate statistics hide and mask the differences within your population in every way.”
“Responses differ most by age, employment status, and household income,” the summary says.
In a related question, the survey asked the respondents their views on the county’s approach to its budget. Over 75%, the Executive Summary says, “either favor ‘keeping property taxes and services the same’ (42%),” while another 19% “want to ‘cut property taxes and reduce less vital services.’”
“There’s not a lot of appetite for new revenue sources of any sort,” MacManus pointed out. “If anything, the message is ‘Keep taxes as they are.’”
“Overall, opposition to revenue and spending increases went up in 2017 (56% to 61%),” the Executive Summary emphasizes.
In June, the majority of the commissioners agreed to hold the county’s millage rate steady. However, because of the need for more revenue to stabilize the budget, they agreed to consider implementing a 5% Public Service Tax on utilities. They will hold a public hearing on that tax on Sept. 12, as part of the final process to adopt a budget for the 2018 fiscal year.
To gain insights into residents’ views about growth, the Executive Summary says, the survey asked two questions: What is the single biggest threat to Sarasota County’s economy? and What is the single biggest thing that can be done to boost the County’s economy?
The answers to the first question put traffic congestion in first place, as cited by 33% of respondents. That was followed by lack of industry and jobs at 22%; property tax rates at 15%; people and industry migrating out of the county and government’s ability to eliminate waste and inefficiencies tied at 9%; and environmental deterioration at 7%.
It is not uncommon to see those top four, MacManus said, “when an area is engaged in a growth spurt again.”
“The biggest change from last year’s survey was a sharp increase in mention of growth-related threats,” the Executive Summary says, putting emphasis on that point — from 44% in 2016 to 55% this year. The greatest hikes were seen in the traffic congestion response (up 5%) and environmental deterioration (up 4%). Conversely, the steepest decline was seen in the percent of respondents noting the lack of industry and jobs (down 4%), the summary adds.
Referring to traffic congestion, Commissioner Detert said, “I think the subtle fact in there is we’re used to seasonal traffic. Now it seems that it’s all year-round.”
The public sometimes takes the attitude that the board members are not affected by traffic, Detert indicated, but “we don’t just fly in from someplace else for these meetings.” That morning, Detert continued, “I had a struggle getting here” because of a highway accident. “It’s not even season.”
Regarding the survey question about citizens’ prescriptions for improving the county’s economy, MacManus said, business-related stimulants headed the list, as voiced by 49% of the respondents. Among those, manufacturing led with 23%. Transportation, ecotourism, and health and wellness all came in at 12%, with commercial development at 9%. “Manufacturing” saw the biggest climb in that category year-over-year; it was up 5%.
Another 27% of respondents cited tourism, she pointed out, and ecotourism headed that list at 12%, followed by arts and culture at 10% and sports tourism at 5%.
Trust in government
As for public trust of government leaders, the Executive Summary notes that for three successive years, “a majority of the citizens surveyed has said they trust Sarasota County leaders to do the right thing for County residents.” However, the summary continues, the 2017 survey “marks the first time in years that a majority of respondents give leaders at all levels positive marks [emphasis in the document].” Trust in state leaders rose 8% from 2016; for federal leaders, the uptick was 5%. However, trust in Sarasota County leaders fell 1% year-over-year, the summary says.
“I really don’t have the explanation for [those findings],” MacManus told the commissioners.
“The 2017 survey results show that 94% of respondents are either ‘very’ (40%) or ‘somewhat’ (54%) satisfied with County services overall and that there is a strong link between trust and service satisfaction ratings,” the summary points out. “Eighty-three percent of those who are ‘very satisfied’ with County services trust County leaders ‘almost always’ or ‘most of the time,’” the summary adds. “In contrast, 67% of those who are ‘very dissatisfied’ with County services ‘never’ trust County leaders to do what is right for County residents [emphasis in the document],” the summary says.