In the long-running struggle over what to do with local tax dollars in Minnesota, a plea from the people emerged this week:
Fix the streets.
That seemed to be the theme when State Auditor Rebecca Otto released the first results of what is hoped to become an annual assessment of how satisfied Minnesota residents are with the services their cities and counties provide. The goal ultimately is to help local officials set priorities and have fuller conversations with their constituents.
Only a small percentage of cities responded to the state’s request for information, and how they gathered their data varied — random sample surveys in some places, mail questionnaires with inconsistent sample sizes in others, for example. So, it’s probably a little dicey to compare Red Wing with, say, New Ulm when it comes to resident satisfaction.
But when I looked at the results for more than a dozen outstate cities with more than 5,000 residents, a pretty clear pattern emerged.
Within the results from each city, the condition of the streets consistently received the lowest ranking. In general, 70 to 80 percent of residents told their local officials they thought overall services were good or excellent. Satisfaction with safety, fire protection, water and sewer service and recreation facilities reached into the 80s and 90s, by that measure.
But often, fewer than half the residents had that high an opinion of the street conditions.
In Morris, for example, 81 percent of the 634 people surveyed said the overall city services were good or excellent. Overwhelmingly, people said they felt safe and thought parks and trails were good or excellent.
But only 28 percent had a positive opinion of the street conditions.
Mayor Sheldon Giese said he was surprised at the numbers because after a long period of inattention, the city has been more aggressive in recent years in fixing streets. “Maybe it’s simply the age of the infrastructure.”
He also noted that streets can simply be top of mind for residents. “When you back out of the garage and hit the same pothole every day, that’s what you think of even if the rest of the streets are perfect.”
Morris wasn’t an exception. The same held true in Fergus Falls, to take another example. Almost everybody feels safe but only 30 percent like the street conditions. The only place I looked at where this wasn’t true was Bemidji. Street conditions there got higher marks than sense of safety.
Interestingly, snow plowing services often got much higher marks than the street conditions themselves.
Otto acknowledges that the data collection was done on a shoestring, that the effort could be made more comparable from one place to another and that more cities could be encouraged to respond.
“But the concept is great,” Otto, who heads the state’s Council on Local Results and Innovation, said. “We’re at the early stages.”
Find all the cities’ results here.