Making the Grade

Dear Readers,
Takoma Park gets a “B.”
The Resident Survey results were presented to the city council January 25 by Erin Caldwell of the National Research Center, the consulting firm that conducted the survey.
The survey results were what Ms Caldwell called a “report card” on city services and government, and a means to get citizen feedback. On a scale of “poor, fair, good, and excellent,” the city was, on average, rated “good” — a respectable “B” grade.
Two little rain clouds floated above the proceedings, drizzling on those below: councilmembers Terry Seamens and Reuben Snipper. They reminded everyone that last year the two of them voiced opposition to the $37,000 survey. The price tag seemed too steep for what Seamens called “a feel-good project” in a recession year.

But now that the survey is done, said Seamens, it behooves the council to put the findings into action, improving the quality of services or saving money.
Snipper was more critical. He said the findings were not specific enough to act upon. “Large parts of it are not particularly relevant,” he said.
Councilmember Fred Schultz shed a little rain, himself. He had qualms that the survey was skewed due to the type of people predisposed to respond. He looked at the respondents’ statistics: 8 out of 10 had high speed internet, 48% had graduate or professional degrees.
However, respondents represented a wide range of income levels. More than half of them had annual household incomes lower than $100,000, including 12% of them under $25,000. Apparently, the city is stuffed with middle-to-low income Ph.Ds with high speed internet access.
Despite the council’s cold precipitation, city staff says the surveys are useful to them.
Service Cuts?
One question dealt with possible budget shortfalls due to the poor economy. If necessary, the survey asked, should the city cut services or raise taxes? A slight majority of respondents (51%) favored reducing services rather than maintaining services by raising taxes (49%).
The survey then asked what services residents would be willing to cut.
Councilmember Clay was skeptical of those answers. She complained that respondents did not have enough background information to make informed decisions, and were “deciding what to cut in a vacuum.” People will want to cut services they don’t use, she said.
The top pick was “city communications” such as the newsletter and cable channel. The newsletter is an odd choice, the majority having said earlier in the survey that the city newsletter was their primary source of city information.
Also, bearing out Clay’s contention that people didn’t have the proper background information, the cable tv channel gets a lot of funding from the cable franchise, not the city.
The next two services residents would cut were recreation programs for adults, and special recreation events (Hallowe’en, movie nights, family trips, Touch a Truck).
Was It Good For You?
The questions probed resident satisfaction with the quality of life, safety, police, city services, and so forth. The survey also gauged the general awareness of emergency preparedness. 60% said they were aware that they should have a 3 day supply of food and provisions, but only 30% said they actually had it.
It also asked how residents wanted the city to deal with the Washington Adventist Hospital’s probable move. 43% wanted the hospital to stay or to have healthcare services its place. Their biggest concern about the move was the environmental impact of new development.
Bench Presses
The city was last surveyed in 2007, and the ratings have generally improved. In most instances the city rated above the “benchmark” average ratings, These are calculated using statistics from hundreds of US cities.
The city was below the benchmark on shopping opportunities, safety after dark, economic development, quality of the city’s web site, street lighting, overall appearance, street repairs and maintenance (the survey was taken during WSSC’s street work), and library collections.
But, in over thirty other categories from city employee responsiveness to trash collection to the city being a good place to raise children, the city was above or equal to the benchmark.
Safely perched on his cloud, councilmember Snipper confessed to having skewed the results by filling out the survey himself. Apparently a compulsive survey-filler-outer, he did the same thing in 2007. Councilmember Colleen Clay, who also succumbed to that compulsion two years ago, loftily declared that this time she resisted.
The survey is available on the city’s web site.

– Gilbert
PS. Read Your Gilbert’s dramatic account of the 2007 Resident Survey presentation.

About the Author

Gilbert is the pseudonym of a hard-bitten, hard-drinking, long-time Takoma Park resident who maintains the granolapark blog. Gilbert and William L. Brown — Granola Park's mild-mannered chief of staff, researcher, and drink pourer — have never been seen in the same place at the same time.

6 Comments on "Making the Grade"

  1. Reuben Snipper | January 28, 2010 at 10:07 pm |

    After reading this, I decided to drop some … nuggets … from my lofty perch in the clouds. Just to clarify, I filled the survey out twice because I received a survey in both years. The survey was sent out to a random selection of households; I happened to get selected twice. It made for some unusual answers: I go to the City Council meetings EVERY week and I don’t watch them on cable TV. This answer alone probably raised the City Council attendance substantially.

  2. Your Gilbert’s prose may be purple, but at least we don’t mix metaphors. Clouds don’t drop nuggets!
    What are the odds that in two random selections two years apart, both your and Colleen Clay’s households received surveys?

  3. Good question, Gilbert! Also, given some of the odd distribution of the profiles of respondents, one can wonder if the “random” survey took account of different strata of the population, starting with ward distribution.

  4. Colleen Clay | January 29, 2010 at 12:51 pm |

    Gilbert, I only received the survey in 2007. Our household was not in the random sample in 2009.

  5. Ah, so when you said “I skewed the survey the survey before. I didn’t to it this time, we just traded off,” you meant you traded off with Snipper.
    We took it to mean that you traded off with another household member this time, because we reported two years ago that you and Snipper (and Terry Seamens) all filled out the 2007 survey.
    So, actually there was no trade-off with Snipper. You merely reduced the number of council serial survey-filler-outers. And that was only because you did not have the opportunity, not because you have reformed.
    We will be watching the council like Woodward and Bernstein next survey!
    – Gilbert
    PS. We are now selling “Stop Survey Abuse!” bumper stickers for $15 apiece. Proceeds to go toward the purchase of medicinal fluids.

  6. Actually, I didn’t realize that Reuben had filled it out twice. When I said we had traded off, I thought I had received it in 07 and he had received it in 09, when in fact he had received it both years. And I was oblivious to Terry’s having filled it out. Sadly, I must report I have not memorized the content of your columns, and thus was not as well informed as I might have been.
    If I had received the survey this year, I wouldn’t have filled it out, because my birthday is not the first one in the year. It was only a fluke that Karen was not home in 07 to fill it out!

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