County officials told they should be proud of high marks on 2012 citizen survey

Photo by Norman Schimmel

In spite of the extra stress brought on by the Great Recession, the majority of residents continue to give high marks to the quality of life in Sarasota County, the county’s 2012 Citizen Opinion Survey shows.

That was the news presented to the County Commission on Aug. 21 by Susan MacManus, a professor at the Florida Institute of Government at the University of South Florida.

“These are great numbers,” MacManus told the commission. “There are plenty of other counties that would be really, really pleased with these kinds of superb results,” she added.

The percentage of respondents who feel life in the county is excellent “has actually been on on the upswing,” she said, while the percentage of those saying it is fair or poor has remained static or at a level that is quite low.

The survey showed over 55% of the respondents rated life in the county as excellent.

The majority of respondents — 55% — also rated the quality of life in their neighborhoods as excellent, MacManus pointed out.

Less than 10% rated the quality of life in the county or within their own neighborhoods as poor, according to the executive summary.

When asked what changes they would recommend in their neighborhoods over the next five years, MacManus said, “Traffic/transportation” was at the top of the list, with 10% of the respondents making it their answer.

“For some of the traffic,” she said, “it’s just people rushing too quickly through the neighborhoods.”

The answers tied for second place, with 5% of the respondents pointing to each, were “Economy/jobs” and “The quality of area homes, businesses, streetscapes, parks and trails,” the survey’s executive summary says.

“Crime” was next, with 4% of respondents making it their answer.

Rounding out the bottom were “Foreclosures,” “Neighborhood deterioration” and “Street lights,” all with 3% of the respondents giving those answers.

“You can see no real one thing sticks out,” MacManus told the commission. “People just have a little bit of everything on their minds.”

She pointed out that half of the respondents couldn’t identify a single thing they would do differently in their neighborhoods. “To me,” she said, “that’s very impressive.”

Regarding the most important issue facing the county today, MacManus said, the answer was “no surprise,” with 36% of those polled responding, “Economy/jobs.”

Tied for second place, “Traffic/transportation” and “Population growth/new development were the choices of 7% of the respondents.

“The economy in the mind of the visitor has improved a bit,” MacManus explained. “They’ve seen more traffic flow here.”

“Crime” was the answer 5% of the respondents gave, with “Taxes” at the 4% mark.

“’Crime’ has moved up a bit statewide as well as here,” MacManus said, though it still was not “a huge issue” in Sarasota County.

Commissioner Jon Thaxton told her he was puzzled by the fact that “Traffic/transportation” was at the top of the list of neighborhood concerns; yet, further in the report, the majority of respondents ranked it as the top project on which the county had spent too much money.

In the latter ranking, “Roads” was the answer of 16% of the respondents.

MacManus explained that people in neighborhoods tend to oppose a county’s spending too much money on roads, because they want more funds spent on neighborhood needs.

“There’s a distinction between a big artery which is tying up a lot of traffic, and people may not think it’s necessary because it’s interrupting their flow to work or home,” MacManus added.

Financial well being

Regarding trends, she continued, the survey provides evidence the public perceives the local economy to be improving. The proportion citing an issue that directly has an impact on their personal economic well being (economy/jobs, taxes, declining property values, health care, foreclosures, insurance, energy costs, affordable housing) rose from 47% in 2010 to 51% in 2011, but fell to 45% this year, the executive summary shows.

Of the issues respondents cited as having an impact on their personal financial well being, those showing the biggest increases from 2011 to 2012, MacManus said, were “Population growth/new development,” up 4%; and “Traffic/transportation,” up 2%.

The largest declines, the survey shows, were in the proportion of respondents citing the following answers to the question about what most impacts their personal economic well-being: “Economy/jobs” (down 3%), “Taxes” (down 2%), “Public schools” (also down 2%), “Stormwater/drainage/flooding (down 2%) and “Declining property values (down 1.5%).

The ranking of the five most-often-cited issues changed in 2012, the summary also shows. “Traffic/transportation” moved up to second from fifth in 2011; “Population growth/new development” moved up to third from seventh; and “Crime” moved up to fifth from sixth.

Respondents’ citation of “Government and elected officials” dropped from second in 2011 to fourth in 2012, while “Public schools” fell from third to seventh and “Taxes” declined from fourth to sixth.

The 2012 survey also shows that 70% of the respondents replied that their household finances were being squeezed, while 28% said they  were not.

The five most-cited fiscal pressure points were as follows:

• Employment/jobs — 11%

• Home insurance — 9%

• Health care costs — 8%

• Personal debt — 8%

• Property taxes — 8%.

The summary notes that “Home insurance” rose from fourth in 2011 to second in 2012, while “Health care costs” moved up to third from fifth in 2011.

“Home insurance is becoming a real pressure point on a lot of people’s budgets statewide,” MacManus told the commission.

Other polls suggest that the Florida Legislature “hasn’t really tackled that issue as well as it should,” she added.

A study of senior citizens in Florida, undertaken a few weeks ago, showed they are “increasingly flat-out dropping home insurance,” she said, because it is “prohibitively costly.”

Threats to the county’s economic well being

When asked the single biggest threat to Sarasota County’s economy, respondents ranked issues as follows, the summary shows:

• Loss of jobs — 42%

• Government waste and inefficiency — 20%

• People and industry leaving the county — 12%

• Property tax rates — 11%

• Deterioration of the environment — 3%

• Housing market — 2%

That question has been asked every year since 2009, the summary points out. During that period, “Loss of jobs” consistently has topped the list, the summary adds. However, between 2011 and 2012, the proportion of respondents mentioning each of those issues declined, with “Loss of jobs” down 10% this year and “Government waste and inefficiency” down 3%.

MacManus also pointed out that the biggest shift in satisfaction ratings between 2011 and 2012 was in the proportion of respondents saying they were “very satisfied” with the overall level of service from the county. That rose from 28% to 30%, she said.

Asked what the county spent too little money on, and the top answer was “Education,” with 19% of the responses noting that.

Fifty-five percent of those polled mentioned “Education” and the following four other issues in response to the question, the summary says:

• Public officials’ salaries and perks — 12%

• Roads — 11%

• Affordable housing/aid to homeless — 7%

• Parks and beautification — 6%

“Again, this is a very, very common concern across Florida,” MacManus said of education heading that list.

When Commissioner Joe Barbetta pointed out that the County Commission had no control over education spending, MacManus replied that it had been her finding over the years that many people “really do not know which local government does what.”

“It’s very useful information to get,” Chairwoman Christine Robinson told MacManus at the conclusion of the presentation.

About the survey

The poll, which was conducted from May 29 through June 29, reached a random sample of 801 county residents 18 years of age or older, the survey’s executive summary says. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.5%.

Pointing out that it was her 14th year of handling the survey,

MacManus also noted that Sarasota County was one of the first counties to undertake citizen surveys. “Now the rest of the country has caught up with you,” MacManus said.

For a look at the full executive summary of the survey, click here.