Do Akron residents feel more safe now than they did a few years ago?
Does the city need more police or firefighters?
What city service is more important: filling potholes, plowing snow or mowing grass?
These are among the questions being asked in the Akron Values survey that the city is doing to measure residents’ perceptions of the city’s services. The city has given the survey at 21 community meetings, with more planned in the next two weeks and this fall.
Some residents who have taken the survey, though, question how much value the results will have because of the wording and content. They think the survey is biased toward the city and the results the administration hopes to get.
“It was more for the city than for the community,” said Danny Durst, who took the survey at a recent West Hill Neighborhood Organization meeting. “They were looking for information, but didn’t really provide any.”
Residents who took the survey at the Neighborhood Network of University Park had similar concerns.
“I heard a few comments about that,” said Pastor Ron Shultz, one of the group’s leaders. “They felt it was a little leading.”
Shultz, however, thinks it’s a good idea for Akron to solicit feedback from residents on city services.
“I’m really glad the city is getting out and trying to get in front of the community and ask them questions,” he said.
Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic, who announced the survey during his State of the City speech in April, says that’s the aim of the effort. He modeled it after a survey done in Hampton, Va., in 2009-10 that the city used during a financial crisis to gauge what services residents valued most and where cuts should be made. Akron isn’t in a budget crunch, but is looking for input to help guide the future spending priorities, Plusquellic said.
“This was the way we thought was best — talking to real people,” he said in a recent interview. “There is no hidden agenda or anything that comes out of it that we are predicting people to do or say.”
The city is paying the Center for Marketing and Opinion Research in Akron about $40,000 to collect the survey data and report the results. Summa Health System loaned hand-held devices to the city for residents to provide their answers during community meetings.
Former Planning Director Warren Woolford and former Chief of Staff Rick Merolla, both retired from the city, are taking turns leading the administration of the surveys at the community meetings. Since late April, they’ve visited block watches, senior groups and other civic organizations, including the Akron Board of Trade Council and Torchbearers.
Merolla said between 10 and 50 have taken the survey at each meeting, with about 600 people so far participating. The survey will be given at four more meetings this month.
Eleven people took the survey at the West Hill Neighborhood Organization meeting at Balch Street Community Center.
The survey started with generic questions designed to make sure those taking it knew how to use the hand-held devices. When residents logged their answers, the results were immediately displayed on a screen in the front of the room.
After the initial questions, the survey switched to a few factual questions about Akron, asking how much Akron has lost in federal and state funding since 1981 and how many fewer employees the city has now than it did then.
The survey then asked residents if they thought the crime rate had increased or decreased, if police and fire calls were up or down and whether the number of officers and firefighters has risen or fallen.
It also asked if residents had called the city’s 311 information line and whether they received adequate service.
The survey next asked what three problems concerned residents most. The potential answers were: snow plowing, pothole repair, trash pickup, high grass and weeds, park maintenance, trash on vacant lots, abandoned houses, street resurfacing, stray animals and something not on the list. The top choice for the residents of West Hill, a neighborhood with many older houses, was abandoned houses.
After probing more on safety forces, the survey turned to jobs and the investment Akron has made downtown. One question said the current downtown workers pay enough income taxes to cover the salaries and benefits of 140 police officers and asked if the investment was worth it.
“We are kind of leading you on,” Merolla remarked, before revealing the results showing 90 percent of the West Hill residents thought the downtown investment was either excellent or good.
The survey concluded by asking where residents mainly get their news and several demographic questions.
Jennifer Boswell, who recently moved to Akron and works downtown, said she was “shocked” by the technology Akron was using for the survey.
“It was interesting,” she said. “I don’t know everything. This was productive for the city and for me to understand better.”
Deanne Christman-Resch, another resident, said she thought the survey had “a point of view” and was intended to promote the city’s agenda. She said she came to the meeting to promote her own cause, which is to get more community gardens in Akron — a topic she brought up after the survey was completed.
Plusquellic said he wanted to start the survey process with people who attend community meetings of groups that regularly meet. He thought the hand-held devices would assure that no one’s voice was overshadowed and that people could respond anonymously.
Plusquellic said he doesn’t think doing a survey in the summer is a good idea because so many people take vacations and are involved in activities.
He wants to resume the survey this fall, though, when residents will be given the chance to do an online version and to take it during town hall meetings. The results, he said, will ultimately be shared with the public.
Plusquellic said the information in the survey, put together by city leaders and CMOR staff, is factual and people are free to answer how they want. He said they can say the city provides poor services or remark that “the cops are not doing the job.”
“I don’t know how slanted it can be when you tell the truth,” he said.
Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter: @swarsmith and on Facebook: www.facebook.com/swarsmith. Read the Beacon Journal’s political blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/ohio-politics.