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Survey says: Tigard voters blissfully unaware of city's financial issues

A pollster contracted by the city to gauge potential support for a local option levy found huge majorities satisfied with the services Tigard provides its residents - and unwilling to pay more in taxes for them.

Every year around budget time, for the past few years, Tigard city staff tell the same story: City revenues grew, but expenses grew just a little bit more. It's a recipe for service cuts — maybe nothing dramatic, at least not yet, but a little more chipped away every year.

At the same time, city officials say, Tigard is coping with aging and inadequate facilities in need of replacement or repair. The roof over the wing of Tigard City Hall that houses the Tigard Police Department is suspect. The city's dearth of recreational facilities has long troubled some on the Tigard City Council. Lack of money in the parks budget to acquire new parklands, as the available cash raised from a 2010 bond measure runs out, has become a contentious issue at some recent council meetings.

City staff and councilors are interested in commissioning a new capital bond measure and a local option levy to help pay for facility upgrades and city services respectively. But the results from a public opinion survey conducted by DHM Research suggest voters don't see a problem that needs fixing.

A whopping 96 percent of Tigard voters surveyed by telephone said they were either "very satisfied" or "somewhat satisfied" with city services, while 82 percent were satisfied with the value they receive from the city in return for the taxes and fees they pay.

Satisfied residents may be less inclined to pay more

"The results of this voter satisfaction survey clearly show that the City of Tigard provides high-level service to its residents," a summary of the survey results presented to the Tigard City Council on Feb. 21 states in part. "Although high satisfaction with services is desirable, it can pose challenges for cities who struggle to maintain funding. Because voters already believe the City is providing good or excellent service, it can be difficult to persuade them that tax increases are necessary."

Indeed, the only area of city services for which a majority of residents surveyed said they would be willing to pay more in taxes was "police and public safety." Even for that, the majority was slim, at 51 percent in support to 45 percent opposed. For the other services, such as parks, recreation and the library, a majority said they would oppose any increase in their taxes.

Perhaps the most disheartening number in the survey results for those in the city hoping for voter approval of a local option levy this year is that 79 percent of voters reached in the phone poll said they think the city can continue providing the same level of services with the taxes and fees it now collects.

City Manager Marty Wine said her staff has reached the same conclusion as DHM Research's report.

She said, "We've had a couple of discussions about this, and about sort of the gravity of this issue is that if folks don't know just the fundamental problem that we have with our general fund … there are services that people get from the City of Tigard that are at risk. … We need to convey the depth of this problem to voters and to our community."

Jason Snider, president of the Tigard City Council, was clearly frustrated by the survey results, which were presented by DHM Research Vice President John Horvick.

"I'm just struck by these findings for a couple reasons. … Some of them are so inconsistent with fact, it's concerning," Snider said.

Snider referred to a motor vehicles fuel tax increase that the council placed on the ballot last November, an effort to increase revenue for roadwork that would have replaced a scheduled utility fee increase. Like many other gas tax measures across the state, it failed. The utility fee hike took effect at the start of this year.

"I'm married to a raging liberal who loves paying her taxes, according to her, and it took 45 minutes to get through the gas tax discussion with her having a city councilor in her house," Snider said. "That tells me that I have very little faith that we can make this case effectively. Like, I'm really concerned about that, if that's sort of the place that we're starting from in some of these conversations. And to me, the gas tax vote in the last situation was so obvious to me. I mean, I don't understand a community that decides they'd rather pay it all themselves rather than have other people that are using their stuff pay for part of it. I just — I don't get it."

No decision made at council meeting

The City Council is looking at referring levy and bond measures, or at least one of the two, to the November ballot this year. DHM Research's survey tested the waters for the former.

"I'm speaking hypothetically here, but if you were to go out to the point where you wanted to ask voters to vote for something and then work backward from there — there's a point at which the council's going to have to make a decision about whether or not to put a measure out to voters. We're not at that point. Survey one is just a sense of what do people know today," Wine said.

If the council ends up wanting to ask voters this November to approve a property tax increase, Wine continued, "The question is, can we move the needle on what people know in that time enough so that we think that there's something supportable that, you know, would work at the polls."

There are other ways for the city to raise revenues, some of which it has used in recent years, such as increasing utility fees. On the other side of the ledger, the council can balance budgets by cutting city spending, which could mean reducing services or laying off employees.

Councilor John Goodhouse said it may be up to the City Council to make those budget decisions and "do what's best for the city" if it can't raise more money from increased taxes.

"There might just be a point where we have to find what resources, what ways will make the city run," he said. "And I think that's what's being entrusted in us as far as being elected officials or being people that run the city."

DHM Research surveyed 300 Tigard voters in the poll conducted from Jan. 5 to 8. The margin of error in the survey was 5.6 percent.

The survey was also available for people to take online, asking the same questions. The 321 respondents to that survey — self-identified residents of Tigard who did not have to be registered voters — were more skeptical of the city, expressing less confidence in the city's use of revenue and lower satisfaction with many areas of service.

"The differences between voter opinions and resident opinions are important to consider moving forward," a summary of the online community survey results concluded. "Residents who proactively sought to share their opinion in the community survey may be more informed about city operations and the services and programs offered by Tigard. They may also be more likely to share their opinions in other venues, such as at a city council meeting."

By Mark Miller
Assistant Editor, The Times
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