2020 Citizen Opinion Survey finds eco-tourism to be top choice among efforts that could boost county’s economy
After Ron Cutsinger of Englewood was sworn into office as the newest county commissioner on Nov. 17, some of his colleagues teased him that he would be responsible for boosting the county’s overall quality of life rating in the 2021 Citizen Opinion Survey.
Although the formal presentation of the 2020 survey results was set for the following day, the commissioners — including Cutsinger — noted that they already had received copies of the survey’s Executive Summary.
A review of the responses from 1,250 county residents age 18 and older showed that 96% found their quality of life in the county “to be extremely positive,” the Executive Summary noted. This year, 53% of the respondents rated it Excellent, while another 43% said it was Good.
After reading the document, Cutsinger said with a chuckle on Nov. 17, his thought about his colleagues was, “They’re really falling short. We’ve got to get to 100. So we’ll work on that.”
As Commissioner Alan Maio pointed out after the survey presentation on Nov. 18, the number of Excellent responses grew from the count for 2019. Last year, 61.4% of the 800 respondents replied, Good, with 34% responding, Excellent, for a 95% rating on quality of life.
A graphic provided to the board members this year, reflecting survey responses since 2006, showed the percentage of Excellent responses climbing from 35% in 2006 to a high of 59% in 2016.
Not only did the number of those surveyed this year increase, to reflect the growth in county population, Angela Crist of the University of South Florida’s Institute of Government explained on Nov. 17, but the survey also incorporated new questions, including several about the COVID-19 pandemic.
Additionally, she said, as a result of consultation with county staff, the survey will feature “rotational questions” every three years on specific county topics. This year, those questions focused on the environment, transportation and infrastructure.
For example: Asked how well they believe the county is informing the public about wastewater spills, with “1” representing no transparency and “5” meaning great transparency, the mean score was 3.1.
And, once again, the county staff received very high marks for its interactions with members of the public, the survey showed: 97% of the respondents said they were treated with respect, up from 96.2% in 2019; 90% reported receiving the correct information; and 84% replied that they were helped in a timely fashion.
As for the question about the most important issue facing the county: USF and its partner in the survey, HCP Associates of Tampa, found a 30% increase in the number of people citing population growth or new development. In 2019, the Executive Summary pointed out, the largest percentage of people chose the response, “There are no serious issues” — 27%. This year, 18% of the respondents picked that answer. On the other hand, the summary noted, “[A] bit more than one in four residents (26%)” cited population growth or new development, compared to the 20% mark for that answer in the 2019 survey.
In the 2020 survey, “Economy/Jobs” and “Homelessness” were tied at 4% each for the answer to the question.
Additionally, the survey showed, in terms of what people expect and what they experience, the issue with the biggest gap was “Traffic flow specific to barrier islands.” The issue with the second largest gap was “General traffic flow,” followed by “Water quality.”
The survey report summed up those answers thus: “[T]he prioritization of traffic issues remains the top concern.”
Asked about the greatest stress on their households, 43% of the respondents cited none, compared to 42% in 2019.
“This is especially important to note,” Crist of USF told the board members, given the COVID-19 pandemic.
Respondents who did offer specific factors put property taxes in first place (8%), with household finances in second place (7%); health care expenses and “Taxes in general” were tied at 6% each.
Focus on county government
In regard to satisfaction with county services, 50% said they were “Somewhat satisfied,” and 44% reported they were “Very satisfied,” for a rate of 94% in that category, Crist continued.
The levels of those who would recommend Sarasota County to a friend, family member or acquaintance as a place to live, work, open a business, rear children, vacation, and retire generally were a bit lower this year. For example, in the 2019 survey, 95% of those surveyed said they would recommend the county as a place to vacation; this year, the figure was 91%.
The category with the biggest year-over-year drop was the recommendation of the county as a place to work. In 2019, the figure was 88%; this year, it fell to 73%.
In replies to another perennial question, those interviewed put the greatest trust in Sarasota County government doing what is right for residents, compared to their trust in the state and federal governments, Crist pointed out. Of the respondents, 58% trusted the county government to do the right thing most of the time, compared to a 44% mark for the federal government and 54% for the government of the municipality in which some respondents live.
In terms of county spending: The survey found a big jump in the number of respondents saying that the single biggest thing that could contribute to the growth of the county’s economy is eco-tourism. In 2019, 11% cited that, the survey showed; this year, 14% did, putting it in first place.
USF Professor Joshua Scacco linked that climb to the pandemic’s effects on tourism, as outdoor activities are seen as a way to keep the county economy growing while COVID-19 remains a problem.
The survey found that “Manufacturing” was in second place, with 12% of respondents citing it, unchanged from the 2019 result. This year, 11% cited “Workforce training or retraining,” compared to 17% in 2019.
And while 16% cited “Workforce housing” last year, 7% noted it this year.
Altogether, 55% of respondents said they believe the county’s spending priorities “are about right,” Scacco reported. Yet, 29% replied that they did not know or refused to answer.
Commissioner Nancy Detert voiced surprise at the overall findings of the survey. “You would think that this would be a much more negative survey just because of COVID …”
Chair Michael Moran did ask whether the project team could start asking respondents how long they have lived in the county.
Moran said he had had a conversation with a woman who was “incredibly upset,” telling him that “population growth was going to ruin this town.” When he asked how long she had lived in the county, Moran added, she replied, “‘About two years.’”
“Some people move here in March and they’re appalled [at the traffic],” Detert pointed out, referring to the extra vehicles on the roads during the height of tourist season. Then, in August, she added with a chuckle, “They’re less appalled.”
“Growth has always been … perceived as a problem,” she continued. “Once people move in, then we all want all growth to stop. But how do you do that?”
The USF team presented the survey results just minutes after County Administrator Jonathan Lewis talked about the uptick in COVID-19 cases in the county over the past couple of weeks. Lewis added that he was asking all county residents to remain diligent in trying to prevent spread of the virus, particularly with the upcoming holidays.
In addressing the survey section on COVID-19, USF Professor Scacco reported that 68% of the respondents said they had signed up for county text message alerts related to the handling of the pandemic and other emergencies.
A second question, he added, focused on individuals’ ability to meet necessary financial obligations over the next three months as the pandemic continues. Of those who are not part of the workforce, 82% reported no concern.
Among those in the workforce, he said, 56% said they were concerned. Overall, 62% voiced no concern.
Additionally, Scacco continued, 49% said their employment had not been affected since the start of the public health emergency. The second highest level — 10% — reported that their hours at work had been cut.
Digging deeper into the responses, he noted, 19% of the 326 persons who said their employment had been affected by the pandemic listed cut in hours as their top issue, followed by 18% who reported having been laid off and 17% who had filed for unemployment benefits.
Further, Scacco noted, “Residents are overwhelmingly turning to local news sources for information [about the pandemic],” with 72% providing that answer. Another 25% cited Facebook, while 20% said they relied on the county’s website, www.scgov.net.
Yet another question focused on how comfortable people were engaging in activities during the public health emergency, Scacco pointed out. The responses showed that 48% cited comfort in visiting county parks, 42% said they were comfortable visiting county-operated beaches and 42% replied that they were comfortable dining in restaurants.
Overall, he told the commissioners, one-third to one-half of the respondents reported being comfortable engaging in one or more activities.
The project team also asked an open-ended question about what would make people more comfortable in regard to engaging in activities with the COVID-19 threat, Scacco added. The top response was wearing a mask (32%), followed by “Nothing” at 17%, and “Don’t know” and “Follow guidelines/Obey rules” at 11%.
Only 10% said they would be more comfortable if the pandemic were over, he noted. However, replying to a question from Chair Moran, Scacco said the findings did not mean that 90% of people felt otherwise.
A smattering of details about the survey and respondents
Crist also pointed out that the USF team — with the help of its partner, the firm HCP — decided to continue with telephone interviews this year. Because of the generally older population in the county — and many of them being retirees, she noted — the team members felt phone calls would remain the best approach.
If a survey is posted online, for example, she said, those people most interested in expressing their views tend also to be most inclined to take the survey, which could create bias in the results.
This year, the survey period was Sept. 6 through Oct. 20, she added; the average time per call was 14 minutes.
And, as the USF team has reported in the past, Crist told the commissioners, “People are very confused as to where they live.”
For example, 39% of the respondents thought they were residents of the unincorporated parts of the county; in fact, the percentage was 67%, as shown by a slide included in the report.
A map accompanying the results noted that the majority of the respondents — 37% — live between University Parkway and Clark Road.
Crist also told the board the margin of error for the data in the survey was 2.77%.
This was the 29th Citizen Opinion Survey the county has commissioned of University of South Florida (USF) staff, a fact for which Crist offered her appreciation to the commissioners.