Sunday Commentary: Should the City Have “Flied Blind” on the Parcel Tax?

Roads are failing, city needs to figure out how to fund the more than $100 million backlog of deferred maintenance.

In June, the city of Davis, as part of a routine update on residential satisfaction, commissioned the company, Godbe Research, to do a poll. They spent approximately $24,840 on that poll. The city had previously hired the same company to conduct polls in 2000 and 2007, suggesting that this was about a seven-year routine update.

The city worked with the company to develop the survey questions and the company then compiled and analyzed the data to prepare a final report.

$24,000 is not cheap, but it is not going to break the bank either. What we learned was invaluable – we now have hard data on what the public believes are the most important issues, where the public gets their information from, where the city is doing a good job at providing city services and the impact of the recession on public perception – and, yes and probably most importantly, the poll guided council decision-making on the parcel tax.

It is stunning to me in this day and age, that anyone would want the city to fly blind on knowing where the public stands. And yes, you can have public outreach meetings, focus groups, etc. But that is not a replacement for polling.

As I said, it is stunning (or at least it should be) that anyone would object to this polling. The polling has already changed the way the city has approached the parcel tax. Without that polling, I believe the city may have pulled the trigger on a parcel tax for November, and that parcel tax may well have gone down in flames. Even co-mingling the parcel tax with other ballot issues would have cost the city around $57,000.

In other words, by knowing that it was unlikely to succeed, the city was able to avoid spending more money on a ballot measure that would fail. Now the council knows that, even at $100 per year, a parcel tax would take a large effort to pass. Is it better to spend the money to know where the public stands, or to fly blind?

However, these decisions get spun in letters to the editor and columns in the local paper.

Writes the local newspaper columnist, “Because polling doesn’t come cheaply, I have now upgraded the condition of the city’s finances from ‘cash-strapped’ to ‘money-to-burn.’”

That columnist has never really covered the city’s fiscal situation. The columnist did not cover the $5 million structural deficit, has not covered the condition of the roads or how much that will cost. And as noted above, the city will spend more to put a measure on the ballot than it did to poll the public, so shouldn’t the city know in advance its chances for success?

He continues, “I mean, if someone at City Hall had just picked up the phone and given me a call, I’d have put together 504 of my closest friends and given the city all the polling data it needs for free.”

While some people apparently find lines like this funny, I just see flawed thinking. Pulling together 504 of their friends, if they have that many, would not produce the kind of random survey the city needs.

The columnist also took issue with the fact that the city utilized an out-of-town firm, as he writes, “Since there clearly is no one in Davis smart enough to do polling and assemble the data into an intelligent format.”

The school district, every time they run a parcel tax, has polled the voters as well to determine things like size and length. The school district was able to utilize the services of Jay Ziegler and Ziegler Associates, which I believe has actually donated the polling to the school district.

The city probably did not have access to that offer, but it is worth noting that, even in that case, the district was relying on a Sacramento-based, or out-of-town, company to do the polling.

The bottom line is that meaningful polling takes expertise and, whether they hire in town or out of town, the polling needs to be done right.

The columnist continues, “Since it seemed clear the city commissioned this poll to assess public sentiment about a parcel tax…”

That’s an interesting question, as the timing of the previous surveys in 2000 and 2007 suggests that the city was probably going to do this poll with or without the looming parcel tax. The majority of questions had nothing to do with the parcel tax. So rather than the city commissioning this poll to learn about the parcel tax, it seems that the city piggybacked the parcel tax issue on the city’s regularly scheduled citizen satisfaction survey.

Nevertheless, he writes, “I don’t know about you, but it strikes me as completely inappropriate to spend city money polling residents on how they might vote, obviously with the intent of crafting ballot language, parcel tax numbers and campaign arguments to achieve the two-thirds ‘yes’ vote necessary to pass such a tax.”

But even if we choose to believe that the city primarily did this poll for the purposes of the parcel tax, is it inappropriate?

If the city is going to pay money to put a parcel tax on the ballot, relying on the revenue for the parcel tax for needs like roads, pools, parks, city infrastructure – shouldn’t the city know in advance the chances for success and the amount that the voters would be willing to support?

The columnist writes, “I still feel that way. Even if the city has more cash than it knows what to do with, it shouldn’t be in the business of trying to influence elections through the use of public dollars. Put simply, this is not a proper function of local government.”

That is really not a fair or accurate assessment. The city is in trouble fiscally, but it also has to be realistic in that it should not throw good money on a ballot measure it cannot win. There is only one good way to determine that and that is to poll.

I see nothing untoward here about the city trying to answer these questions in advance, but these types of columns certainly do not help the community gain trust in their city government and I think this does us all a tremendous disservice.

But, then again, maybe that explains why the influence of the local newspaper has dropped so dramatically in the last seven years. In 2007, 48.8% of the public relied on the local newspaper for their local news. Now that number is 34%. Perhaps the local columnist should be more worried about that little factoid.

—David M. Greenwald reporting


About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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22 thoughts on “Sunday Commentary: Should the City Have “Flied Blind” on the Parcel Tax?”

  1. Tia Will

    “Is it better to spend the money to know where the public stands or fly blind?”

    I am never a fan of “flying blind”. I am a stickler for evidence, even when I think I know the answer. I see evidence in the ongoing selection of city council members that our community increasingly is choosing council members that they believe have developed a comprehensive grasp of the problems facing our community through study and analysis of those issues.

    Looked at from a slightly different perspective, would we want our city council members to hire a city manager without interviewing or reviewing their resumes ? That doubtless would be less expensive in the short term and would certainly not “waste” our council members time nor divert their attention from other issues. Would we want them to make re zoning decisions without considering the pros and cons of their actions ? Or maybe they shouldn’t direct staff to spend time ( and thus money) on assessing the need for infrastructure repair…..after all the pot holes are right there and visible….why waste money on an assessment ? Kind of ridiculous when you think about it. So why is polling to improve accuracy in gauging community support for a tax proposal any less legitimate or valuable than any other evidence based process ?

  2. Jim Frame

    Please consider changing the title of this article to “The City Should Have Flown Blind on the Parcel Tax?” or — better yet — “Should the City Have Flown Blind on the Parcel Tax?”

    1. Highbeam

      Jim, I asked about that immediately this morning. David intended the reference to baseball to be in the title. I should have restructured the sentence, however, to be a more proper question, but I left it alone.

    1. Highbeam

      Flied is the reference to baseball that David intended in the title, a reference which would normally be worded something like “flied out.” Please see note to Jim Frame also.

  3. Davis Progressive

    back to the column itself – why are we going to forego polling? should we have just wasted taxpayer money and put a measure on the ballot that couldn’t pass?

    does dunning actually understand the city’s finances?

    do people find his column to be humorous? misinformed? misleading?

    1. DavisBurns

      He TRIES but rarely succeeds at being funny. Regardless of the subject he just pokes at it to see if it will get a laugh. I am always surprised when he writes something worth reading. It does happen now and then but he does our town a disservice when he puts his nose in the serious business of running the town.

    1. Davis Progressive

      which sounds like a good question until you realize that it’s more expensive to put something on the ballot – so you have to make sure you can get it passed. $25K is not going to do a lot for potholes anyway, that’s why you need $25 million

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