October 19, 2013

Community survey was tax poll, doesn’t mirror Modesto diversity

Modesto officials said in the spring they were hiring a consultant to determine residents’ priorities and satisfaction with City Hall. While the community survey would “capture attitudes toward revenue options,” officials insisted it was not a poll measuring support for a sales tax. But two California State University, Stanislaus, professors say the survey was just that. Additionally, the survey does not reflect the diversity of Modesto. Seventy-five percent of survey takers were white and 61 percent were 60 years of age and older.

Modesto officials hired a consultant in the spring to conduct a community survey to determine residents’ priorities and satisfaction with city services.

Officials insisted the survey – which could cost as much as $35,500 – was not a poll measuring support for a sales tax. But a California State University, Stanislaus, political scientist and a public administration professor who reviewed the survey questions at The Modesto Bee’s request say it was just that.

“It seems that the purpose of the survey was to try out different explanations of the (tax) measure and to gauge potential support/opposition among various voter factions,” wrote Larry Giventer, a professor emeritus in the department of political science and public administration.

Public administration assistant professor Umar Ghuman said the questions appear to be framed in such a way as to make a tax increase the only solution. He said people are not likely to oppose a question that asks them to maintain essential services.

“No one is going to say, ‘I don’t want enough police officers or I want the fire department to close,’” Ghuman said. He said these kinds of questions are very common when cities propose a tax increase or other policy.

Deputy City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley disagreed. She said the consultants determined that 27percent of the survey was on revenue options, with the rest focused on such concerns as residents’ satisfaction and perception of the city, and its services and budget.

“From our perspective,” she wrote in an email, “the entire survey was a 100 percent customer satisfaction survey to gather information on the level of service our citizens wanted and level of service the city would be able to maintain.”

Does not mirror city

Modesto officials also said they wanted the consultant to design a survey that “provides the geographic, demographic and attitudinal highlights of the community (Spanish-translated survey is needed for large Spanish speaking population),” according to a city document.

But if the May 6-8 telephone poll of 400 registered voters is a community survey, that community is not Modesto.

Seventy-five percent of the survey takers reported they were white or Anglo, and 11percent reported they were Hispanic or Latino. (Survey takers self-reported their ethnicity and race.) Sixty-one percent were 60 years of age and older. Just four of the 400 survey takers were Spanish speakers.

The Census Bureau reports that 49.4percent of Modesto residents self-identify as non-Latino or non-Hispanic whites, 35.7percent are Latinos or Hispanics and 15.8percent are 60 years of age and older.

The city’s response to the demographic differences between Modesto and the survey?

“Representation or input from city residents has not been limited to just this survey,” Williams-Ridley wrote in an email. “The survey was not the only source or venue used to obtain community input on services or revenue options.

“We began the community engagement process last year in December with two public safety forums, then in early 2013 with two council workshops and in April with a community engagement forum and lastly the community survey. We are using community input from all of these sources to develop the city’s strategic plan and service delivery priorities.”

The survey respondents skewed whiter and older than Modesto because they were selected at random through voter registration records. Older white people are more likely to be registered voters than others.

It’s cheaper to use voter-registration records when conducting a telephone poll than other methods, and the records provide more information, such as the age and party affiliation of the voter. It’s also a common practice when the survey includes questions about revenue options, as this survey did.

Modesto hired the Lew Edwards Group at a cost not to exceed $35,500 to conduct the telephone survey and associated work. Lew Edwards contracted with Fairbanks, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates to do the survey.

Public records request

A summary of the survey results was discussed at the June 4 council meeting and showed strong support for a half-cent sales tax for public safety and a 1cent general tax for public safety, parks and roads, and other purposes. The council has placed Measure X – a 1cent general sales tax – on the November ballot.

This latest information about the survey questions and the survey takers’ demographics came from a California Public Records Act request filed by Modesto businessman Ed Persike. It took about a month for the city to release the information, and Persike enlisted the help of attorneys in getting the data.

He was upset that the city had not released this information because the Measure X campaign – which is being primarily funded by Modesto’s police and fire unions – apparently had access to the survey data because it has hired the Lew Edwards Group.

Persike believed it was wrong that those promoting the tax had information the city was denying others. “I just got angry,” he said. “I got angry at the deception, at the business-as-usual attitude.”

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