Janesville falls short in survey

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Marcia Nelesen
Tuesday, October 30, 2012

— Lack of good jobs.

Weak local economy.

Shifting property values.

The sluggish local economy proved to be Janesville's Achilles heel in a survey that asked for residents' impressions of their city.

The city council commissioned Cobalt Community Research to find out what residents like and don't like about Janesville. Council members are using the results as they fashion the 2013 budget.

Janesville's overall score consistently ranked lower than the average score of other Wisconsin cities. It scored about the same as other cities in the Midwest and the nation.

In measuring Janesville according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index, Janesville scored 59 on a scale from zero to 100. The national average for cities is 62, the average in the Midwest is 62, and in Wisconsin it's 67.

A representative from the company said Janesville's economic health was the "No. 1 area that most impacted Janesville scores."

"This is actually the one that has proven the Achilles heel for you currently," said William SaintAmour in explaining the survey results to council members recently.

"Frankly, it killed you from the score standpoint."

The council will see a "significant impact" on its overall scores as the city's economic health improves, SaintAmour predicted.

The survey response by 971 residents was "very solid" and is representative of the community, SaintAmour said. He compared the number to surveys done on national levels where 384 responses—drawn from a proper sample—produce a conventional margin of error.

Janesville residents were chosen randomly from utility bills.

The survey includes further breakdowns of the residents who responded to the survey for future analysis, including age, employment, length of time they have lived in Janesville, income, gender and ethnicity.

The response rate skews slightly toward older people, something that is usual in most surveys, SaintAmour said.

The survey will help the city understand residents' community values and priorities, he said. It will also provide benchmarks for future surveys.

A city hopes a resident's experiences are good enough that the resident wants to remain in the city, would recommend the city to others and to businesses, would volunteer in the city and would support the city administration, SaintAmour said.

Overall, Janesville compared well to Midwestern and national benchmarks but usually fell below Wisconsin benchmarks, SaintAmour said.

Scores that ranked higher than state or national benchmarks when considering quality-of-life components included fire and emergency medical services, shopping opportunities and library services. Residents said Janesville is a safe place to live, bike and walk and is an enjoyable place for children.

The city consistently scored lower than most national and state benchmarks when residents were asked to score the community's image.

Residents scored the city lower than average when it ranked Janesville as being a safe place to live; being enjoyable for young adults, for seniors and for everybody else; for its physical attraction; for being a great place to live, a great place for business and for growing responsibly.

It scored 60 on a 100-point scale when residents were asked whether the city was the "perfect community for me." The next closest was a score of 67 nationwide. The average statewide was 73.

The survey included graphics that show areas in which residents expressed high interest but gave low scores.

He suggested the city council consider shifting some resources to those areas, such as community events and infrastructure, from areas that might have "optimized out, such as fire response, utilities and the library.

"If you improve those things further, it won't affect overall satisfaction that much," SaintAmour said.

"It's almost like buying a car," he said.

People look at safety issues and fuel economy, not whether the car has a steering wheel, he said.

"The fire department is kind of like that steering wheel. You don't chose one community over another (because of fire services).

"One of the things we see is the ability of communities to start leveraging some of their strengths to help shore up some of the areas they want to shore up," SaintAmour said.

The city could also pair an area of strength with one of weakness, he suggestion. It could use the library, which scored high, to help with economic development, which scored low, for example.

Other areas that negatively impacted the overall score were city government and management, although SaintAmour cautioned those score are low in most communities.

Other findings

-- The five most important services identified by residents are law enforcement; fire response; emergency medical response; streets and infrastructure; and economic development.

-- Quality-of-life components that scored higher than either state or national averages include fire and emergency medical services, utility services, police, shopping opportunities and library services. Scoring lower than all averages were community events, economic health and diversity.

-- In ranking residents' perceptions of the city's economic health, the city scored low—45 on a scale of 1 to 100. That compares to a Wisconsin average of 50. It also scored low on the quality and availability of jobs, stability of property values and strength of the local economy. It scored higher than most averages when grading living costs and housing affordability.

-- Janesville scored higher than the state average when it came to overall local government scores. The strengths indicted by residents include well-trained employees who work hard, do a good job and are trustworthy. Residents like the city's website.

The city did not score as well when residents were asked whether the government spends money wisely or is open to residents' ideas.

But those areas are low for all communities, SaintAmour said.

"Communities often do a poor job of communicating how those decisions are made and how to communicate effectively with the public," he said.

-- Janesville also scored below other Wisconsin communities when residents considered their overall satisfaction with property taxes.

SaintAmour said that might simply be a matter of communicating the quality of services received for the taxes paid.

"People do see getting value for their taxes if they are being spent on things that mean most to them," SaintAmour said.

-- Janesville scored lower than the state and national averages when considering residents' satisfaction with community events. Those components included questions about the range of cultural offerings, a strong and vibrant art community, the quality of sporting events and the variety of events.

-- A total of 41 percent of residents would cut services to keep taxes and fees the same, while another 26 percent would reduce city services to decrease taxes and fees.

"About 67 percent have a much more 'cut' kind of mentality," SaintAmour said.

A total of 37 percent of residents would increase taxes to maintain services compared to 6 percent who have "more of an 'increase taxes' general theme," he said.

-- Residents identified the top three places where they would cut funds: open space and parks, public facilities and downtown development.

-- To maintain or reduce taxes, 40 to 50 percent would raise user fees for fire response; library services; emergency medical response; public transportation; recreational facilities and programming; and enforcement of maintenance standards on private property.

-- If taxes must be raised to maintain services, 40 to 48 percent or more would pay more for law enforcement, for fire response, emergency medical response, streets and infrastructure and snow plowing. About 38 percent would pay more if their money went for economic development.

"Those are the things people are willing to pay for," SaintAmour said. "There is a lot of value to them."

SaintAmour recommended that city staff figure out why residents answered how they did and come up with ideas to improve the city's scores.

Staff should consider whether residents rated the city on how it is actually doing or on a "distorted view"—whether the views are based on reality or perception.

"Are you actually hitting the standard but not communicating it?" he asked.

SaintAmour recommended staff then form focus groups of residents to find out whether staff is right or wrong.


Last updated: 4:44 pm Tuesday, August 27, 2013

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