League budget survey back before assembly

With a projected budget shortfall of 7.5 million dollars over the next two years, the Juneau Assembly is seeking some spending guidance from the community.

In the past, the League of Women Voters has conducted a survey of residents’ budget priorities for the Assembly. But a change in format from a telephone poll to a mail-out survey has raised concerns among some assembly members.

This morning (Monday) an assembly subcommittee will meet to decide what course of action to recommendation to the full assembly.

Last week the subcommittee met with Steve Hamilton, a retired University of Alaska Southeast professor, now an Anchorage-based business consultant. For years he has volunteered to help the League of Women Voters with its survey. Hamilton told the panel that telephone surveys have become increasingly unreliable.

“People just are more likely to let their answering machine pick it up, not return the call, say they don’t want to participate, or a lot of people are using cell phones, which are hard to reach,” he said.

Hamilton admitted there’s no perfect survey. Even with a mailer, there’s no way to guarantee enough responses for the survey to be considered statistically valid, and no way to ensure that people don’t fill out more than one in an effort to skew the results.

But unlike a telephone poll, which might exclude people with cell phones, Hamilton says everyone has an equal opportunity to respond to a mail survey.

“That’s the best you can do,” Hamilton said. “I don’t know of any other way – short of putting somebody in manacles and beating them over the head – to make them respond.”

The League has proposed doing the survey for 10-thousand dollars. Half of that is printing and mailing costs, the other half a fundraiser for the League.

Assemblywoman Mary Becker says the assembly is facing a dilemma. On the one hand they want community input. On the other, they know that a 10-thousand dollar expense will be scrutinized by the public in light of the looming budget deficit.

“This will be an expenditure that will be viewed as helpful, or not. I’m a little afraid that it’s going to swing more to the not. Because I think there will be skepticism about this process,” Becker said.

Two members of the public attended last week’s meeting. Marie Darlin worked with Hamilton on the Juneau Commission on Aging’s “Senior Needs Survey.” While that poll was targeted to a more specific group of respondents, Darlin says she thought it yielded reliable results. But she said the most important thing she took away were the comments.

“Half of our survey is comments. We promised when we sent the survey out, every comment will be printed and will be in the report. Those comments are worth as much as the report itself,” said Darlin.

But local businessman Neil MacKinnon warned that comments can be a less-than-accurate gauge of public opinion.

“That’s only going to be as good as the date you ask those questions,” MacKinnon said. “For example, if this survey had come out in November, I will guarantee you that the top thing on the list would have been snow removal. And you would have had no end of screaming and yelling. Now if it stays like this? It’s not going to be on anybody’s radar screen.”

Another concern assembly members had was the timing of the League survey. Originally the League said results wouldn’t be available until April, well into the assembly’s budget process. But League officials now say raw numbers will be available before then, though a report on the survey will take until early April.

Finance Committee Chair Karen Crane says the main thing the Assembly wants is good information from the public.

“We also want to get good information out to the public, so when we’re getting that information back, it’s informed,” Crane said.

CBJ Assemblyman Randy Wanamaker was the only member to oppose the League of Women Voters survey at last week’s Committee of the Whole meeting.

Wanamaker voted against forwarding the matter to the full assembly, saying he wanted to have an estimate of what it would cost to have the survey done by the research firm McDowell Group.

“My concern is this, that we may be missing an opportunity to have a really scientifically accurate survey done by a firm that’s well organized to do it at a very reasonable cost,” said Wanamaker.

McDowell Group founder and principal partner Eric McDowell says he hasn’t been contacted by the city, and he’s not lobbying for a contract. But as a Juneau resident, he says he would have some concerns about the assembly choosing a mail-out survey.

“The Assembly will be undergoing some very difficult decisions, and they have to have credible and reliable information that fairly represents the broad opinions of the community,” said McDowell. “And so what’s the best method for doing that? Certainly not a mail survey with a low response rate where the people who send it in are self-selective.”

McDowell says a professional research firm has various call lists that they use, and can set a minimum response threshold, to ensure a statistically valid telephone survey.

“There’s different lists we work with, and there’s methods that we use called random digit dial, and all kinds of ways to ensure that the sample we’re getting is a representative sample of the population. So that you really find out what people think,” McDowell said.

Over the years, McDowell says the firm has done “a few dozen” surveys for the city.

Finance Committee Chair Karen Crane says the Assembly hasn’t discussed inviting other groups or companies to bid on the survey, but it still has time to do so before the budget writing period begins.

Crane chairs the subcommittee, which will meet this morning to decide if they have enough information to recommend moving forward with the League survey. The meeting is at 10 a.m. in room 224 at City Hall.

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