With all of the complaints about the city using public resources to fund a poll, the poll lays out one clear and unmistakable fact – that the public really does not have a good grasp of the challenges that the city faces right now.
It starts with the public assessment of the more important issues facing the city – 17 percent said water quality and 13 percent said water rates. You have to go down the list to find budget, economic development, employee salaries, quality of roads and the like.
And yet, as we have laid out time and again, the city faces a crisis because there are hundreds of millions in unfunded liabilities and deferred maintenance on infrastructure and the city right now lacks a mechanism to pay for that. It lacks the funding for the pool leaking thousands of gallons of water a day. And without short term taxes and longer term economic development, the city, as we know it, will cease.
And yet, is the public aware of this?
When asked if they were aware of the water infrastructure projects being conducted by the City of Davis, “the overwhelming majority indicated that they were indeed aware of them.” That nearly 78 percent of the public was aware of the water projects is encouraging, although one has to wonder where the other 21.6 percent have been for the last few years.
That illustrates that a sustained public campaign over a few years will get most of the citizens’ attention.
Another interesting piece of the survey is that the public, while split on the municipal electric utility idea, is not opposed to it. By a 46.5 to 34.5 margin with 19 percent undecided, the respondents said “they would support the City of Davis forming a municipal electric utility and purchasing PG&E’s distribution system, [and] there were slightly more residents in favor of the idea.”
Given the controversy last spring over this and the negative drumbeat of news, that is encouraging.
However the citizens’ knowledge of the city’s fiscal system is troubling. While only 3.5 percent of the respondents thought it was excellent, 25 percent said good and 35 percent said fair. Only 23.7 percent of the voters believe that the city’s current financial situation is poor or very poor.
How can that be? The city just had to plug a $5 million structural deficit with a new sales tax. The city has a huge amount of unfunded obligations to future retirees and hundreds of millions in unfunded infrastructure needs.
People in the know are talking fiscal crisis and potential bankruptcy, but the voters think we are in good or fair shape?
Perhaps that is what is driving the answer to the next question. “Shall an ordinance which would authorize the City of Davis to impose a new parcel tax in the amount of $149 per year for 15 years on residential units and on non-residential units in the amounts to be specified in the Ordinance, to fund maintenance, repair, rehabilitation and replacement of parks, streets and roads, greenbelts, bike paths, swimming pools, and recreational facilities be adopted?”
As Godbe Research indicated, “As a test of uninformed support for a parcel tax measure to fund maintenance of City facilities, likely November 2014 voters in the City were read only a ballot question that summarized the main features of a $149 parcel tax. In response total support registered at 46.5 percent (‘Definitely yes’ 28.8%, ‘Probably yes’ 17.7%). In comparison, total opposition was at 44.1 percent (‘Definitely no’ 31.3%, ‘Probably no’ 12.8%), with the remaining 9.4 percent undecided (DK/NA). These results indicate that there is a base of support, but it is still far below the required two-thirds majority. Additionally, when the 4.3 percent margin of error is accounted for, support could be as low as 42.2 percent, or as high as 50.8 percent.”
What does this tell us? To me it tells us clearly that the public does not grasp the enormity of the problem that we face and that therefore the city needs to figure out a way to educate the public.
And the sub-polling shows that there is some room to grow. The public is more willing (although never at the two-thirds level) to support things like bike paths, parks, streets and roads, but is less than willing to support a swimming pool.
This is the point we made in an earlier column – the city has to lay the facts out to the voters because, from the polling answers, it doesn’t seem that the respondents understood the magnitude of the crisis.
As Rob White put it a week or so ago, “Davis has an increasingly poor fiscal position with respect to the City’s budget and the services it delivers.” But what this polling shows is that the voters do not understand that. They think we’re either in good shape or okay. That accounts for a stunning 60 percent of the voters. How can that be? How can their perception be so far afield from reality?
I think there are several answers to that.
First, for several years following 2008’s economic collapse, the talking point out of the system was that, while things aren’t perfect, we are in better shape than most. The economic solution was to balance the budget through attrition, furloughs and removing non-immediate spending needs from the budget – such as roads.
Second, while the local paper’s influence has indeed waned in the last seven years, it’s still the single largest source of information in the community. And, while it has covered water over and over again, the paper has rarely covered the city budget. The city budget problems have rarely been a feature story, and even more rarely covered by a certain columnist.
The truth is stunning at this point. Because if the city does not find resources – tax money through temporary tax measures and revenue through economic development, we are going to see road conditions deteriorate, swimming pools, parks and greenbelts close. The quality of life will decline.
But the city will have trouble getting either passed if 60 percent of the citizens continue to believe everything is okay and anyone daring to say otherwise is engaging in fear mongering.
So the polling should be a wake up call that the city (among others) has failed to educate the public on the reality of the situation. We have to operate from a mutually understood set of facts before we can attempt to figure out a solution to the problem.
—David M. Greenwald reporting