Citizen Opinion Survey results presented to County Commission
Editor’s note: This story was updated on Sept. 16 to clarify the overall percentage of those surveyed who rated the county “good” or “excellent.”
An “overwhelming majority” of the Sarasota County residents who took the county’s Citizen Opinion Survey this year — 97% — rated their quality of life good or excellent, Susan A. MacManus, a distinguished professor at the University of South Florida, has reported to the County Commission.
But the most important issue to the 800 survey participants this year was “Population Growth/New Development,” the survey shows.
The Executive Summary of the 2016 survey commissioned by the county — conducted by MacManus and her team at the Florida Institute of Government — reported that the number of residents offering an “excellent” rating on quality of life rose 11 percent from 2015 — 48% to 59%. Those who rated it either “good” or “excellent” rose from 95% to 97% year-over-year.
The number saying their quality of life is fair has “been going down,” MacManus told the County Commission during a Sept. 7 presentation.
Nonetheless, effective growth management policies was cited by 64% of respondents this year — compared to 45% in 2015 — as the most important quality-of-life issue the county needs to address, the survey results show.
“Good-Paying Jobs” held first place among those answers, cited by 76% of respondents; “Public Safety” was second, with 65%; and “Workforce Housing” was fourth, with 62%.
Additionally, while the need for jobs “was overwhelmingly seen as the biggest threat (49%)” to the county’s economy in 2015, traffic congestion replaced that this year, topping the list with 28% of respondents citing it, the survey’s Executive Summary notes. This was the first year that option was available, the summary adds.
Only 7% of those interviewed this spring mentioned the economy and jobs as the biggest threat, the summary says. That issue headed the list over the previous five years, MacManus told the County Commission.
“This was an open-ended question,” she explained.
She and her team had anticipated they would see changes year-over-year, she said. For the past three years, MacManus continued, population growth and new development “really [have] been most on people’s minds.”
Following economy/jobs on the list on the threats list were homelessness at 6%; traffic and transportation, 6%; taxes, 5%; and crime, 5%.
As for “The Most Important Issue” facing the county [emphasis in the document]: Commissioner Christine Robinson pointed out that she had expected the top response — “Population Growth/New Development” — to be the focus of more than 28% of respondents. “That kind of shocks me,” she told MacManus.
Still, Robinson noted, in 2012, only 7% of respondents said that was the utmost concern for the county. That response hit the 21% mark in 2014 and then 27% last year, Robinson added.
“This is not actually as high a percentage as you might see in some other parts of the state, which are already congested a bit more than here,” MacManus replied. Nonetheless, that 7% increase in two years “is still a pretty hefty jump,” MacManus added.
When Robinson asked whether that response from Sarasota County residents “is about average” compared to other parts of Florida, MacManus told her, “I would say so for areas that are growing at your pace.”
Among the other big changes in the 2016 survey, MacManus noted an increase in the number of respondents citing “General household finances” in answering the question about what puts the greatest stress on their own household expenses. That answer came from 19% of those surveyed. In other words, she said, groceries and everyday necessities are “taking a bigger chunk of people’s money.”
The 2016 survey showed the number of participants saying they were experiencing no financial stress fell 14%, “from about half of all respondents (48%) [in 2015] to about a third (34%),” the Executive Summary says.
“Property taxes,” cited by 12% of respondents, was in second place on the list of factors exerting the greatest stress on household finances, the results show. The third-highest ranked answer was “Taxes in general,” cited by 7% of respondents.
“You have some very, very high-end property values,” Commissioner Charles Hines pointed out, and then other people live in houses dating to the 1950s and 1960s. He also noted that Sarasota County has the second-lowest property tax rate in the state, but the Property Appraiser’s Office staff determines property values.
In regard to the single biggest threat to the county’s economy: After traffic congestion, “Lack of Industry and Jobs” was in second place, with 26%, and “Property Tax Rates” was ranked No. 3, cited by 13% of respondents.
“Even though the economy has recovered,” MacManus said, “there’s still a sizable portion [of people who have not experienced that].”
“I was just absolutely fascinated,” Robinson told MacManus, to read that people most likely to answer “Property Tax Rates” were homeowners voluntarily not in the workforce and living between Clark Road and Blackburn Point Road. “I couldn’t figure it out for the life of me.”
The data her team members collect from respondents make it possible to provide such details, MacManus replied. It takes a while to analyze all the information, she added, but she and her students know county leaders use the material gleaned during the survey as they make decisions on issues.
Improving county conditions
When respondents were asked the biggest factor that could contribute to the growth of the county’s economy, 18% cited “Manufacturing.” In second place, “Transportation” was at 14%, followed by “Commercial Development” with 12%.
“You see here some pretty big changes,” MacManus noted.
Last year, “Ecotourism” was at the top of the list, cited by 15% of respondents. This year, it was the response of 10%. In 2015, “Manufacturing” was cited by 11% of respondents, putting it in a tie with “Commercial Development.”
Robinson pointed out that “Residential Construction” was cited this year by 4% of respondents. Combining that with “Commercial Development” achieves a total of 16%, she added.
Nonetheless, MacManus replied, people make the distinction between the two. As density increases, MacManus added, “people aren’t necessarily seeing that as a plus.”
Then Hines offered what he called “just an observation.” People cite manufacturing and commercial development, he said, “but … people are concerned about residential building.” People say, “‘Bring us big manufacturing companies, but don’t let [the employees] build houses here; they need to live someplace else. … We want them to somehow just drop from an airplane, work all day, spend their money here, then go home at night.’”
Referring to the quality of life responses, he pointed out that people “love living here,” but they do not want anyone else moving into Sarasota County.
However, MacManus explained, “‘Manufacturing’ doesn’t always mean huge facilities.” People might be referring to high-quality industries, such as those that produce health care equipment and those that seen as highly innovative.
Trust in government
Regarding trust in government, MacManus pointed to a graphic illustrating the findings from 2011 to 2016. It showed 60% of respondents this year said they trust county leaders almost always or most of the time. That compares to 46% for federal leaders and 45% for those in state government, she noted.
The local figure “has risen steadily from 25% in 2013,” the survey report says.
“Government closest to home often is held in bigger esteem,” MacManus told the board.
The results also showed that the more satisfaction people cited with county services, the higher the marks they gave local government leaders. Seventy-seven percent of respondents this year who were “very satisfied” with county services also said they trust county leaders “almost always” or “most of the time,” the report notes.
In response to a question from Robinson, MacManus said Sarasota County residents appear to have a higher degree of satisfaction with county services than those in other areas of the state.
Citing the statistics, County Administrator Tom Harmer expressed his appreciation to the 2,200 county employees who interact with the public.
This was the 25th survey she and her team have conducted for the county, MacManus pointed out. The 800 respondents were over the age of 18, she noted, and “race, gender and age were extremely representative.”
The survey was conducted from May 12 through June 9; its margin of error is 3.5%, the Executive Summary says.