Quality of life marks remain high
For the fourth consecutive year, the Sarasota County Citizen Opinion Survey respondents put “Population growth/New development” atop their list of the most important issues facing the county.
However, only 24.6% of the 1,250 respondents cited that topic, according to details provided to the County Commission during its regular meeting on Sept. 26. That figure was down from 31.4% in 2022.
The issue was No. 2 in 2019, a chart showed, behind the assertion of 26.6% of the respondents that year that no serious problems were facing the county. The lack of serious problems was No. 2 this year, a chart noted, followed by “Crime” in third place, as cited by 8.9% of the respondents. “Affordable housing” was No. 4.
Jack Smith, a research analyst with the HCP firm in Tampa — which collaborates annually with a University of South Florida (USF) team to conduct the survey and analyze its results — underscored in his Sept. 26 remarks to the county board that only one person in 10 who responded to the survey this year reported no serious issues facing the county, a lower result than in the past.
This is the 32nd year of the survey,
A graph showed that, in 2019, the “No issues” answer came from 26.6% of the respondents. In 2022, it was the reply of 13%.
In addressing the slight climb of the “Crime” answer this year, Smith also pointed out that the 8.9% of respondents citing that issue was the highest level for that answer over the past five years. In 2022, 5.3% of the respondents put it in fourth place.
The 1,250 respondents to the survey reflect the county’s demographics, the USF team pointed out to the commissioners: age, gender, race and education levels. The margin of error for the survey is 2.77%, a slide said. County residents were contacted between July 25 and Aug. 25, the same slide pointed out. The average call duration was 13 minutes, it added.
The question that the commissioners typically focus greatest attention on each year regards the quality of life in the county. This year, 49% rated it “Excellent,” and another 49% put it at “Good,” a graph showed. The Executive Summary of the findings did point out, “However, overall enthusiasm has changed from 2022.”
Last year, the number of respondents who chose “Excellent” was 52%, with 43% replying, “Good.”
Additionally, this year, 97% of the respondents said they were “Very satisfied” or “Somewhat satisfied” with county services; 50% went with the higher mark, a graph noted.
“Those two [answers] go back and forth every year,” Hailey McIlvaine, a USF student who worked with the survey team, told the commissioners on Sept. 26.
The county also won high marks in regard to respondents’ willingness to recommend the county to other persons as a place to live, rear children, work, open a business, retire, or take a vacation, McIlvaine added. The USF team saw a slight increase in the positive responses to those questions this year, she said.
The highest percentage of “Definitely” answers came in response to recommending the county as a place to vacation: 63%. In reply to the retirement issue, 62% said they definitely would recommend the county. Regarding recommending the county as a place to live, the “Definitely” answer was chosen by 61%, while 60% picked that reply for recommending the county as a place to work. For rearing children, 54% chose “Definitely,” and 49% picked that reply in regard to opening a business.
Still, Commissioner Michael Moran enthusiastically greeted the answers regarding working and opening a business in the county: “I couldn’t be more thrilled.” He pointed out that, adding in the respondents who said they “Probably” would recommend the county as a place to open a business, the positive responses represented 94% of the total.
Moran explained that he has been focused on economic development issues in the county since he joined the commission in November 2016.
In response to the question about the “single biggest thing that can contribute to the growth of Sarasota County’s economy?” the largest percentage of answers — 16% — cited “Eco-Tourism.” In second place was “Arts and culture,” at 14%, with “Health and wellness in third, with 12%.
Eco-tourism also was the top answer in the 2022 survey, cited then by 15% of respondents. “Health and wellness” was at the 14% mark last year, while “Arts and culture” came in at the 12% mark.
“Workforce training or retraining” came in at 8% this year, down from 9% in 2022. In 2018, it was the leading response to the question, cited by 21% of respondents.
Further, the recurring question about the issue producing the greatest stress on a household found that 21% of respondents indicated they were not feeling any stresses. That was the top response once again, as it has been since 2017. However, the figure was down from a high of 43% in 2020. Last year, the number of respondents with that viewpoint made up 23% of the total.
This year, like last year, household finances was in second place, with 15% of respondents citing that. “Gas prices” came in third, with 14% of the respondents choosing that answer. “Gas prices” also was in third place in the 2022 survey.
Questions on water quality, environmental issues and the jail
Along with the annual recurring questions — including those noted above — each year, the USF team includes specialty topics among the questions.
This year, those dealt with county water quality initiatives, protection of the environment and the capacity of the jail.
To that end, Joshua Scaccho, an associate professor at the University of South Florida who is associate chair of the university’s Communication Department, discussed the findings and explained that a large percentage of respondents to each question indicated a lack of awareness about the topic.
In regard to water quality, he acknowledged, “I know that the county has made significant investments in water quality over the past several years.”
The survey asked, “How concerned do you believe Sarasota County is about addressing water quality issues?”
Of the respondents, 10% replied, “Very concerned,” while another 52% picked “Concerned” as their answer. However, 37% said they were neither concerned nor unconcerned. Based on their comments when they were taking the survey, Scaccho indicated, “They don’t necessarily have an idea of what’s going on …”
A companion question focused on the county’s wastewater infrastructure. Again, 10% of respondents said they believe the county is “Very concerned” about addressing that issue, while 52% replied that they feel the county is “Concerned.” In the case of that question, a slide showed, 36% felt the county was neither concerned nor unconcerned.
Then, a follow-up question asked whether residents believed the county’s spending priorities on wastewater infrastructure “are about right” or should be changed. In that case, 53% chose the “about right” answer, with 23% saying the funding should increase. Another 23% said they were not sure about the spending levels.
Yet another question asked respondents whether they are aware that the county’s Environmentally Sensitive Land Protection Program (ESLPP), which is funded by revenue from an annual 0.25-mill tax levied on property owners. The program is scheduled to end in 2029.
Scaccho told the commissioners that 44% of the respondents said they were aware of that timeline. However, he added, “I’m highly doubtful [about that knowledge]. I think that there might actually be some people who are a little optimistic about what they know.” He pointed to the 39% of respondents who admitted that they were unaware of the timeline. Another 17% did not respond to the question or indicated apparent unawareness of the issue.
Scaccho summed up the results as “a healthy majority of individuals who don’t have a lot of awareness with this program.”
“The way we could tell this,” he explained further, are the results for a “knowledge” question; that pertained to how much of the county’s land is preserved in perpetuity. Only 10% of the respondents knew the correct answer is “More than 30%.”
Staff has pointed out that the total acreage represents approximately 34% of the land in the county.
Nonetheless, Scaccho added, 78% of the respondents agreed that the county is making good use of taxpayers’ dollars in preserving environmentally sensitive property.
The commissioners already have voiced the desire to conduct another referendum in 2026, to ask county citizens about extending the ESLPP program before it expires.
“When they’re in the middle there, could it be it’s just not an issue for [the respondents] instead of an information deficit?” Chair Ron Cutsinger asked.
Based on “the sizable percentage” who say they do not know or are not sure, Scaccho told him, “It is in general an information deficit.”
The jail question noted that the facility in downtown Sarasota can handle 836 inmates. Then the survey asked whether respondents believe the jail is under capacity, at capacity or over capacity. Only 36% chose “Over capacity,” even though the facility typically exceeds capacity, as Sheriff’s Office personnel have reported over the past several years.
Another 6% of respondents said it is under capacity, leaving 59% who believe it is at capacity.
A follow-up question asked about the importance of constructing a new jail, if the facility is over capacity; 29% of the respondents called a new jail “Very important,” while another 60% said that would be “Somewhat important.” Scaccho called the 60% response “indicative of some political soft support” for spending the money necessary to construct a new jail.
Commissioner Moran has told his colleagues that he believes a referendum will be necessary in coming years on the issue of paying for a new jail, given the inability thus far of county jail diversion programs to keep the detention center population below capacity.
Positive interactions with county staff noted again
Yet another routine survey question asked respondents about their interactions with county staff. Only 76 of the 1,250 respondents had contacted the county in the previous 12 months, the survey showed. The top concern, a graph said, was garbage collection (14%), while water issues came in at No. 2, with 12% citing that.
Asked how they contacted the county, 88% reported having called the county; 22% had in-person contact.
Follow-up questions showed that 97% of those 76 individuals said they were helped in a timely fashion, while 90% reported having received correct information, and 93% said they were treated with respect. (Last year, the survey team staff focused on the fact that 100% of the respondents who said they had contacted the county had been treated with respect. Robert Allen Jr., vice president of HCP, told the commissioners, “I don’t know that I’ve ever seen this in my years of doing survey work.”)