Population growth and development, along with traffic, remain issues of high concern
Although 95% of the 800 respondents in the 2019 Sarasota County Citizen Opinion Survey rated the quality of life in the county “Excellent” or “Good,” the percentage of the “Good” answers rose from 2018, the research team pointed out to the County Commission this week.
As the survey’s Executive Summary put it, “Those responding with ‘excellent’ are meaningfully lower and those rating ‘good’ are meaningfully higher.”
This year, 34% of the respondents cited “Excellent” when asked about their quality of life. In 2018, the figure was 45%.
Yet, regarding another positive point, the 2019 Executive Summaryalso noted, “While ‘population growth/new development’ has been the most-cited important issue facing the county for the past six years, 2019 has been the first within those six years [when] ‘there are no serious problems’ outranks the population growth concern.” The Executive Summary added, “The perception that ‘there are no serious problems’ has meaningfully increased since 2018.”
In fact, Madelin Ghomshe, research coordinator for HCP Associates — which collaborated with a University of South Florida (USF) team for the analysis — noted on Sept. 24 that 27% of the respondents said they do not believe the county is facing any serious problems. “That is the big takeaway here,” she said, adding that 20% said the most important issue facing the county is “Population Growth/New Development.”
In that part of the survey, “Traffic/Transportation” came in third, with 9%, followed by “Crime” at 6% and “Taxes” and “Affordable Housing” at 4% each.
In 2018, 19% of the respondents said the county was facing no serious problems, with 24% citing “Population Growth/New Development.”
The respondents this year — who had to be at least 18 — were chosen by random for telephone interviews between June 15 and July 17, the project team reported. The average time for completion of the questions was 13 minutes, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5%.
The sample of respondents on whose answers the results were based matched demographic data from the U.S. Census Bureau for Sarasota County, Aubrey Myrick, a USF undergraduate and research intern for the project, told the commissioners.
“Overall, your report card is very good. … People in general are happy,” Joshua Scacco, assistant professor in the USF School of Communication, pointed out to the commission.
Still, he referenced what he called “pressure points that we want to bring to your attention.”
Scacco added, “Not everyone can make it to these [board] meetings. The survey’s a great opportunity for individuals to register some of their concerns that they might not necessarily be able to express at 9 a.m. on a Tuesday with you all.”
Noting the concerns about population growth, new development and traffic, he said, “In many ways, this is a reflection of an embarrassment of riches that Sarasota County has. … Individuals want to move here.”
In regard to the traffic issues, Scacco continued, the respondents were asked if they believed problems are worse on a particular road or street or in a specific area of the county. A plurality mentioned U.S. 41, he said. That figure was 28%, followed by 17% who chose the “Everywhere/No specific location” option.
A new set of questions this year, Scacco noted, was designed to assess respondents’ views regarding the ideal situation compared to the reality in Sarasota County for a variety of issues. The individuals were asked to rank their answers from 1 to 10, with 10 being the ideal.
For example, one question asked about “Traffic flow specific to barrier islands.” As Scacco described it, the respondent was to think about how important it would be to have good traffic flow to work and other destinations.
“A larger gap indicates a larger pressure point between an idealized conception of county life” and the reality, he said.
The importance of traffic flow to the barrier islands ranked about 9.5, but the experience ranked about 6.5, the graph showed.
“General traffic flow” had the same results.
The issues with the third and fourth largest gaps between the ideal and the experience were “Availability of affordable workforce housing” and “Effective growth management policies,” Scacco noted.
The gaps were smallest when it came to arts and culture in the county, parks and recreation, and sense of community, he added.
As for the question, “What do you think is the single biggest thing that can contribute to the growth of Sarasota County’s economy?” 17% chose “Workforce training or re-training,” while 16% opted for “Workforce housing.”
“Residential construction came in at the 2% level, followed only by “Other” at 1%.
Good marks for county staff
On yet another positive note this year, 42.5% of the respondents were “Very Satisfied” with the services provided by Sarasota County Government, while 52.5% of respondents were “Somewhat Satisfied.” The combined 95% satisfaction rate dropped 1% from the 2018 figure of 96%. However, last year, the percentage of “Very Satisfied” was higher — 49%.
Ghomshe, the HCP associates research coordinator, did point out that only 10% of the 2019 respondents had contacted the county over the past year for service or to obtain information. She said the total number was 79.
Asked what type of assistance they sought, she continued, “Other” was the heading for the majority — 32% — with “Permitting” coming in at 18%, followed by “Garbage Collection” at 14%. Nine percent of the contacts were related to water, a graph showed.
The vast majority of those who did seek help did so by phone, Ghomshe said: 62.4%. None of the 79 respondents used social media.
As for their interactions with county staff: Ghomshe said the data show that 96.2% said they were treated with respect, while 93.7% replied that they were given the correct information and 86.1% said they were helped in a timely fashion.
According to trends in those answers since 2009, the number of respondents feeling they were treated with respect reached the highest point in 2017. Further, the percentage reporting they were helped in a timely fashion has been on the decline since 2017.
A mix of reviews
A new question on the 2019 survey asked how likely a respondent would be to recommend Sarasota County to a friend, family member or acquaintance in specific circumstances. The highest percentage — 78% — said they “definitely” would recommend the county as a vacation destination, while 71% said they “definitely” would recommend the county as a place to retire.
On the lower end of the scale, 52% said they “definitely” would recommend Sarasota County as a place to work, with 50% saying they “definitely” would recommend it as a place to raise children and to open a business.
Commissioner Christian Ziegler, the youngest and newest member of the County Commission, told the project team members, “It’s great that we have these very high numbers” in regard to vacation and retirement recommendations. However, he voiced a desire for the board to concentrate more on making the county equally inviting to people seeking jobs, wanting to open businesses and wanting to rear children. “That really falls on us.”
A couple of other opportunities
During the introduction to the survey results, Myrick, the USF research intern, remarked on a bit of a different opportunity for greater education of residents.
Each respondent was asked whether he or she lives in a municipality or in the unincorporated part of the county, Myrick said. “We actually used GIS [software] to plot where they actually live versus where they said they lived,” she explained. “A lot of residents are confused about where they live …”
On another point, Assistant Professor Scacco pointed to the 30% of respondents who did not know or refused to answer the question about whether they felt the County Commission’s budget priorities were appropriate. (Forty-six percent said those spending priorities are about right, a pie chart showed.)
One possible explanation for the high number who had no idea how to respond, he pointed out, is the influx of new residents.
In similar fashion, he continued, people were asked how they perceived the county’s “rainy day fund” reserve in the General Fund account. (Since the Great Recession began, the commissioners have spent down that reserve fund to keep services at steady levels without raising the property tax rate. This fiscal year is the first time since the economic downturn began that they were able to put money back into that reserve fund.)
The correct answer in the survey was that the fund is doing better, Scacco told the board members. Yet, only 22.6% could provide the proper response. Conversely, he said, 38% had no idea how the fund is doing, while another 9.1% responded that it is doing worse.
“We’re seeing potential opportunities for county government to connect its good work back to individuals,” Scacco said.
“What I think I know or I believe, living in the community, is reflected in your numbers,” Commission Chair Charles Hines told Scacco at the end of the presentation. The survey “really gives us an idea of what people are feeling,” Hines added. “A very loud minority … can affect our policies.”