Tacoma is asking the right questions. How will we use the answers?
The City Council has problems: a stubborn budget deficit, a disgruntled business community, stagnant population growth, high crime rates, dirty air and streets like Swiss cheese. To help steer out of this mess, the council commissioned a survey and a community “visioning” process to ask residents “How are we doing?” and “How should we be?”
FIRST THE GOOD NEWS
The council reviewed survey results Aug. 5. Councilman Marty Campbell opened the discussion by saying, “There’s a lot of good news” in the results. Indeed, there is.
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Among the highlights: Two-thirds of survey respondents sometimes walk or bike instead of drive, and almost half use mass transit. Three fourths are “somewhat” or “very” likely to recommend Tacoma as a place to live, and 80 percent expect to live here in five years. Seventy-two percent are at least “somewhat” positive about the quality of life in Tacoma. And these numbers are up a bit from four years ago.
That’s good, right? Yeah, bu t…
COMPARED TO WHAT?
One value of the National Citizen Survey is the ability to benchmark results against more than 300 U.S. cities. These rankings matter because cities compete for investment and for people. If we fall behind in this competition, budget deficits worsen, potholes swallow small cars, etc.
So despite Tacomans liking or recommending our community, we’re in the bottom third of the country in this regard. Drilling deeper, just half of our respondents think this is “a good place to retire” or “a good place to raise children” (47 and 50 percent respectively), putting us in the bottom 10 percent of U.S. cities.
Only four in 10of us have a positive “overall feeling of safety” in Tacoma, in the bottom 5 percent nationally. Ugh. Air quality: 47 percent positive. Overall cleanliness: 37 percent. Both are bottom 5 percent. Again, ugh.
Is dirt the price of a robust but gritty economy? Apparently not. Just a third of respondents feels positively about Tacoma’s economy, putting these Dour Dans in the bottom fifth of benchmark cities.
FOR THE PEOPLE
There’s lots more information in the 127-page report, including intriguing differences among council districts and people of various incomes, ages, genders and colors. But when questions switch from “How is it now?” to “What’s most important?”, responses are pretty much the same across Tacoma. We all want the same things: a safe, clean city with a healthy economy.
And leaders we can trust, essential for progress. Yet only a third of Tacomans have “confidence in the government of Tacoma” or feel positive about “the value of services for taxes paid” or think city government is “generally acting in the best interest of the community.” Only 35 percent of respondents think city government is “being honest.” In our mistrust of city government, we’re in the bottom 10 percent of cities nationally.
WHY ASK WHY?
Our people don’t think we’re doing well – and objective data for crime, environmental quality and the economy confirm their opinions. But at the same time, residents don’t trust city government to make things better. As Campbell said at the study session, “It’s good to ask why.”
Okay, fair point. Why?
Ken Miller has lived in Tacoma since 1970. He’s served on the Board of the Tacoma Housing Authority and on the 2014 Charter Review Committee, among other civic activities.