2016-07-01 / Front Page

Town survey reveals ‘a bit of tension’

By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — The results are in from a recent survey of residents and the numbers “suggest a bit of tension” on a number of fronts, according to the man paid to interpret the results.

In January, selectmen agreed to send out a 34-point questionnaire, spending roughly $540 to include it in about 6,000 property tax bills. Those mailings went out in March and the survey also was available online. In all, the town got back 441 completed forms, a response rate of 7.3 percent on the tax bill mailings, although Selectman Ed Karytko noted the rate as a percentage of the town’s year-round adult population was “closer to 5 percent.”

Karytko also expressed concern about the demographic that saw fit to spend time answering questions from selectmen. Fully 84 percent of the respondents were age 50, or older.

After all, the point of the survey is to help selectmen set their strategic goals for the near term, focusing their attention on the things residents most want done.

“So what if we’re here saying, ‘We’re just trying to follow the survey,’ and then, once we do something, a bunch of young people come in and say, ‘That’s not what we want,’” Karytko remarked at the June 14 selectmen’s meeting.

In October, selectmen agreed to pay Municipal Resources Inc. of Meredith, New Hampshire, $2,800 plus mileage reimbursement for help in crafting a strategic plan “to secure perspectives on the viability and effectiveness of current municipal operations and secure input regarding the primary challenges faced by the community over the next five to seven years.”

Funding for the contract came from the selectmen’s contingency account. Town Manager Barry Tibbetts said Monday the bills to Municipal Resources will come to about $3,500. Still, he called that a “good deal” given the amount of time company founder and CEO Don Jutton has spent on the project. In addition to overseeing the survey, Jutton led selectmen though a June 21 workshop on the results and will prepare a final report for the board, to be delivered at its July 12 meeting.

However, the end result, Tibbetts said, may be to go back to the well.

“Any time you do a survey you want a balanced proportion of all age groups to give you the best information,” he said. “What we have did not do a great job on capturing the opinions of those younger than 50. So, I think maybe we need to go back and do something further, to get that younger age group, and that might give us better clarity.”

That could happen later this summer, or early fall, Tibhbprovisions. betts said, with selectmen expected to really knuckle down on their five-year plan by the time the snow flies.

Of those who did answer the survey, the average respondent not only skewed older, but also richer than the median resident. About 40 percent reported personal income in excess of $100,000. That also was the percentage who reported being retired, while 38 percent said they work full-time, and 17 percent work just part-time. A vast majority of the respondents were married (75 percent), year-round residents (82 percent), and owned their own home (74 percent), while most (55 percent) have lived in Kennebunk for at least 15 years.

Of 15 priorities suggested by selectmen on the survey, only four captured the attention of the majority of survey takers. Of those, 65 percent agreed public infrastructure should rise to the top of the list for selectmen, 64.9 percent said “community character” is the most important issue to deal with, 63 percent wanted selectmen to focus on capital and financial planning, and 55.3 percent said public safety should come first. Rounding out the Top 5, at 49.3 percent, was a concern for “citizen engagement.”

That latter concern was highlighted in a split decision among respondents when asked to rate the quality of communication between town hall and the residents of Kennebunk. A little more than 49 percent rated that dialogue as “excellent” or “good,” while 51 percent deemed it merely “fair” or “poor.”

But the questions were not all pick ’em, or rank ’em. Of the 34 questions, nine were open-ended, giving those who filled the surveys out free rein to express themselves. And that they did. Jutton’s preliminary report ran to 165 pages, of which 141 pages were “narrative responses.”

“People had a lot on their minds, although it was a lot of repetitive kinds of things,” Jutton said. “By far, the single most mentioned issue was the tax rate and fees. Those comments were predominately negative. I don’t think anyone said their taxes should be higher.”

The next most cited concern, which played into the tax issue, was Kennebunk’s share of the RSU 21 school budget.

“There’s a strong desire for quality schools, in order to attract young families to the area, but, on the other hand, there’s a lot of concern about the cost and current structure of the school system,” Jutton said.

As might be predicted from anyone who’s read the Post over the past year or so, the third and fourth most-mentioned topics were the pay-as-you-throw solid waste program, and the fate of the Mousam River dams.

Regarding having to buy trash bags from the town, Jutton noted, “nobody is really neutral about it, they all seem to either love it or hate it.”

And as for the dams, the levee is about to break, Jutton predicted.

“I’d get ready for some interesting conversations. It appears to be on almost everybody’s mind,” he said.

Meanwhile, Jutton said much of the survey, on both the free-form responses and the structured answers, revealed an underlying mass of tension, between wanting to promote economics development and a desire to retain a quaint New England village feel, and between wanting to restructure government, but registering satisfaction with municipal services that, he noted, is “off the charts.”

Asked to rate the quality of service performed by municipal employees, 96.8 percent deemed that work to be good-to-excellent, with just 13 people checking boxes for fair, or poor.

“Frankly that’s the highest I’ve seen in any community we’ve surveyed,” Jutton said. “That speaks volumes from my perspective.”

However, a large percentage of the narrative answers raised issues with staffing and cost control, as well as the general functioning of local government.

“There’s something going on there,” Jutton said. “There is a bit of a disconnect between a want for services, and a want for lower taxes. That is, in essence, the American story – we want it all, but we want someone else to pay for it.”

But respondents said they were willing to spend on some things, with 63 percent saying they would support the purchase of conservation land with tax money. Just 25 percent said no to that idea, while 12 percent checked “don’t know.”

“Of course, those are tricky questions because we have nothing to put before them at the moment,” Jutton said. “So it could mean 10 cents on the tax rate, or $1 on the tax rate. We ought not to jump to any conclusion too quickly on what people are willing to spend, although there does seem to be a strong sentiment across the board in support of the need for affordable housing at all levels.”

A clear majority, 65.6 percent, encouraged selectmen to pursue affordable housing projects for young families; 63.6 percent said low-cost homes are needed as “workforce housing,” while 79.4 percent said seniors need a break on housing costs.

There also was what Jutton deemed “clear support” for adopting building design standards aimed at preserving Kennebunk’s New England character (with 85.7 percent saying yes) and for creating both public and private services aimed at senior citizens (69 percent said yes, although 25.7 percent wanted “more info.”

Less clear was the question of creating dedicated areas for business parks and commercial centers (just 53 percent thought that was a good idea), while opinions ranged across the board on whether Kennebunk is doing enough to protect its environment (42 percent said yes, while 29.7 percent didn’t know).

There also was divide on controlling residential development: 31.7 percent said limit it by regulation, 19.4 percent said limit it to places not served by public water and sewer, and 25 percent said to let market forces rule.

As for directing business growth, 23.7 percent said limit it by regulation, 30.2 percent said limit to areas now served by utilities, 13.7 percent were in favor of the market having the final say, and 22.6 percent said the town should be in the business of actively promoting business development.

Meanwhile, the consensus (54.4 percent) was that current land-use rules in Kennebunk strike a “good balance” between regulation and owner rights, while 16.9 percent said zoning is too restrictive, and 16 percent deemed it too lenient.

In the end, Jutton said there will always likely be conflict on how much Kennebunk residents are willing to pay for services. Too high or too low is not an easy call to make, he said, given that Kennebunk is “dead square in the middle [of all Maine municipalities] in terms of tax rate.”

But like Tibbett, Jutton said he felt the survey failed to capture the opinion of the town’s younger demographic.

“That’s the only area I have a little bit of concern with,” he said. “That [84 percent] response rate for seniors, that’s disproportionate by about a factor of two compared to the population base in town.”

Still, he said, with Maine well-known for being the oldest state in the nation, with a median age approach that of the average survey taker, Jutton allowed that it might do well to lean a little heavy on the concerns of the aging baby boomer set.

“You’re not alone,” he said. “With the rest of New England, we are going to be one giant nursing home in the next 10 years unless we do something different.”

But what will be done, and how heavily this or subsequent surveys might play into selectboard action remains to be seen.

“I think this provides some good insight and information,” Tibbetts said. “I think surveys like this will become a nice tool for the board to look at every couple of years.”

Even so, it may be worth mentioning that, unlike the polling now ricocheting across the airwaves as the presidential race heats up, the selectmen’s “Goal Setting Survey” in not a scientific survey, due to the lack of a random sample. Because respondents got to self-select whether to respond, the likelihood is that those who did fill out a form were particularly motivated to so do – because they are either very happy, or very upset with the town – potentially skewing results.

The term, SLOP (an acronym for Self-selected Listener Opinion Polls) was coined by Norman Bradburn, director of the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, to describe this kind of survey bias. Bradburn invented the term in the pre-internet era to describe call-in surveys conducted by talk-radio programs, which he noted tended to attract a non-representative slice of the general population.

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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