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  Time to Take the Pulse
January 4, 2004

Recent events have made it more important than ever for Richmond to implement an annual “citizen satisfaction survey,” Many cities conduct such surveys to determine what city services require improvement and what citizens’ priorities are for the allocation of resources.

Six months from now, the City Council will adopt another annual budget for fiscal year 2004-2005. Four months from now, the shape of that budget, largely created by the city manager and department heads, will have been substantially determined. Wouldn’t it make sense to first find out how the citizens of Richmond want to spend their shrinking resources and whether they are willing to pay for increased services, and if so, what?

I first began advocating a survey of Richmond residents some seven years ago when Floyd Johnson was city manager. Floyd said he thought it was a good idea, but he wanted to wait a couple of years because he knew the administration would get slammed. He wanted to start with a higher base line so that the staff would not be devastated when they found out how poorly the citizenry regarded city services. I’m not sure his pessimism was based on reality, but just the fact that he expressed it indicated how little confidence he had in his administration’s approval rating.

Well, Floyd went on to greener pastures before things got good enough to make him comfortable with a survey, but I continued to advocate for an annual survey. The closest we ever got was last year when the City Council appropriated $50,800 to retain Evans McDonough Company, Inc., (the consulting firm of former Councilmember Alex Evans) to conduct a survey. Unfortunately, the City Council subsequently backed off due to the budget crisis.

A budget crisis is perhaps the most appropriate time to have the results of a citizen satisfaction survey because that is when the City Council has to make the toughest choices about resource allocation.

Like most things cities do, we don’t have to invent a survey process ourselves. Successful models are abundant. One is as close as Sacramento, where in a recent Customer Satisfaction Survey, residents indicated that Sacramento’s top priorities for the next ten years should be education, public safety, transportation issues, and improved air quality, and residents rated safe neighborhoods as the top reason for living in the City of Sacramento, followed by transportation issues, air quality, and public schools.

Another is Fayetteville, Arkansas, the town I grew up in and where I lived until age 23. Fayetteville is located in the Arkansas Ozarks and has a population of about 60,000. In 2003, AARP magazine named Fayetteville one of the 15 best places for baby boomers to reinvent themselves, and the Milken Institute rated the city as tops in a national list of best performing cities for economic performance and job growth. For a modest $25,000, Fayetteville engaged the Survey Research Center at the University of Arkansas to conduct a phone survey of 400 residents that generated an exhaustive report chock full of information invaluable to city council and staff. The entire 300-page Survey of Citizens report can be viewed as a PDF file and is well worth looking at in order to see the detail and depth of information such surveys can provide, but it is a large file and can take some time to download.

When Fayetteville residents were asked to rate city services, more than half — 51 percent — felt that streets need the most improvement; 24 percent felt transportation should be enhanced; 12 percent thought utilities should be upgraded; 5 percent thought parks and recreation services needed to be upgraded; and information programs, public safety services and other services each received 3 percent.

Citizens were also asked to list which of the goals that the City Council set at its spring retreat they viewed as most important. Again, respondents named improved mobility and street quality as the most important with 31 percent; planned and managed growth received 27 percent; maintaining a clean and green city earned 18 percent; developing south Fayetteville garnered 18 percent; and developing downtown Fayetteville, Dickson Street and College Avenue netted 6 percent.

Nearly all the citizens surveyed — 95 percent — consider Fayetteville "a good or excellent place to live." Respondents say they choose to live in Fayetteville for myriad reasons: 31 percent named the quality of life as their reason; 22 percent listed being close to families; 18 percent said being close to work; 15 percent responded to be close to University of Arkansas; 4 percent listed the quality of the school system; and 1 percent named either weather, recreation opportunities or high value for their tax dollars.

I intend to once again ask the City Council to fund and implement a Richmond Citizens Survey as soon as possible to help the City Council make the best possible decisions about the 2004-2005 budget.