City’s first citizen survey reveals highs and lows

Gary B. Gray • Dec 28, 2012 at 9:55 PM

This year marked the first time Johnson City has delved into the art of citizen surveying.

Community members were encouraged to provide feedback in the Johnson City 2012 Citizen Survey to help the city manager and city commissioners develop a strategic plan that will help serve as a road map for the next several decades. Though departmental surveys have been conducted in the past, this is the first comprehensive city-wide survey.

“Comprehensive” may be a relative term in this case. Responders included 314 people living in Johnson City who were mailed surveys, as well as 365 people who filled out an online version that did not include a residency requirement. About one in four returned the mailed offering, of which 1,200 were sent out. But that rate is within the norm, according to benchmarks established by the National Citizen Survey, a third party utilized by the city to construct the survey.

Budget Manager Lora Grogg, who recently gave a PowerPoint presentation of the survey’s findings to the City Commission, said this week that overall, the findings were positive. “Positive” findings mean that either “good” or “excellent” was marked, instead of “poor” or “fair” on questions structured to be answered in this manner — which was most of the questions.

“Our mailed response rate was 26.1 percent, which is within the normal range,” she said. “We also had a strong online response rate. According to the people that do the survey, 25 percent to 40 percent is typical. This was our first survey, and it did not have a statistical significance assigned to it. The 26.1 percent had a 5 percent margin of error.”

A significance level normally is used to confirm or negate the validity of a theory. In this case, the number of surveys returned out of the 27,004 occupied Johnson City households would have been considered, and the number of returned surveys would be a measure of the likelihood that the responses were a good representation of the community thoughts and feelings.

As the survey was getting under way in November, City Manager Pete Peterson said in a news release that “We want to get an honest look at ourselves.”

Grogg said the city’s Geographic Information Systems Department began with a total pool of 26,962. That number was then narrowed to 1,200, and surveys were sent to residences, including duplexes and apartments.

“Even though we did not ask for personal identities, there were, what could be considered by some, personal questions,” Grogg said. “People do choose not to answer some responses, especially on the website survey. So, we were told to take the online responses with a grain of salt regarding demographic questions.”

The cost for the mailed surveys was $10,300. The total cost was $11,600.

“Right now, the plan is to do a survey every two years,” she said. “We will use the same National Survey, and we’ll likely do things the same way. (Peterson) told commissioners that nothing in the survey surprised anyone, and he’s going to use this in his strategic plan. For me personally, from where I sit in the budget office, the high marks for ‘public trust’ and the ‘value of city services for taxes paid’ stand out.”

Benchmarks used for comparison came from 100 citys and municipalities that also participated in the National Citizen Survey-structured responses. Let’s take the category of “city services,” for example. Twenty-three responses rated city services about middle of the road; eight rated them below the benchmark; only three rated city services above the standard. This is where most of your tax dollars go and is the single highest expense for the city.

In general, Johnson City received high marks for being a nice place to live. The number of people recommending the city as a good place to live also was above the benchmark.

The ratings suffered, however, when it came to availability of paths/walking trails, ease of bicycle travel and ease of walking. These categories received ratings of “poor” or “fair” in roughly 65 percent of all answers.

Street repair, amount of public parking and traffic signal timing received low marks. Also, land use, planning and zoning services and code enforcement services did not get high marks.

Last year, Johnson City hired Angie Carrier as its first Development Services Department director. The position was the result of a consolidation of the city’s planning, community development, codes division and geographic information systems departments as well as the Metropolitan Transportation Planning Organization.

Dave Jenny was named Johnson City’s chief building official in March, and he said his first priority was to organize the division to be more efficient and friendly for citizens and the building community.

While 77 percent rated daytime downtown safety “good” or “excellent,” 65 percent rated safety at night “poor” or “fair.” That last rating was far below the standard for both day and night. Meanwhile, ratings for police services and crime prevention were above the benchmark, and fire and ambulance/medical services ratings were on par with other cities.

Another area that received low marks was stormwater, which was much below average. This also is an area the city is trying to address, with an estimated $30 million long-range plan in the works.

Some of the questions were customized to solicit what responders thought should be the city’s top priorities over the next five years. Both the mailed and online surveys reflected the following three priorities: schools, downtown redevelopment and environmental sustainability.

The PowerPoint’s last slide is titled “Where we shine!” Customer service is at the top of the list. Looking at how people rated “knowledgeable, responsiveness, courtesy” and “overall impression of employees,” the ratings were similar to other municipalities. They did not exceed the benchmark.

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