The San Antonio skyline looking west. Photo by Melissa Burnett.
The San Antonio skyline looking west. Photo by Melissa Burnett.

An overwhelming majority of San Antonians strongly support the good work police and firefighters do in the city, but they believe just as strongly that the men and women in uniform should pay more of their health care costs now borne by taxpayers.

That’s just one highlight of the City’s 2014 Community Survey, the fourth biennial survey the City has commissioned since 2008. The survey was conducted by the ETC Institute in Olathe, Kansas, a leading community research firm. The survey, conducted in English and Spanish, is based on telephone interviews with more than 1,000 residents spread evenly across the 10 City Council districts.

The survey is commissioned in many other cities in Texas and across the nation. The results give city officials one more metric to measure their performance, locally and against peer metro areas.

“You are clearly the city doing the best job of all the cities we survey over 250,000, and actually the best of any city we’ve surveyed in the last 20 years,” said Chris Tatham, a principal at ETC Institute. “(About) 77 percent of your citizens are satisfied with the services you deliver. In the majority of cities we survey, less than half the citizens are satisfied with city services.”

From ETC Institute Principal Chris Tatham's presentation to City Council.
From ETC Institute Principal Chris Tatham’s presentation to City Council.

The survey results were presented at the City Council B Session on Wednesday, the first such meeting since Mayor Ivy Taylor was elected by her City Council peers to fill the unexpired third term of former Mayor Julián Castro, now serving in the Obama administration as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

“It’s good to get this kind of information as we move into our budget process and set priorities,” said District 3 Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran.

Council members feeling a bit of fatigue over the long-running petition debate welcomed the positive citizen feedback on the City’s overall performance beyond the divisive issue of streetcars.

“This sends a positive message about the city and I hope it gets out to the community,” District 10 Councilman Mike Gallagher said.

“Too bad the (anti-streetcar) coalition left the chambers,” District 8 Councilman Ron Nirenberg quipped.

Trend Lines

More than 70 percent of the respondents have lived in San Antonio for decades. Surprisingly, the majority of them live in single family homes without children or elders living in the same household. Eight in 10 say they are registered to vote, and about two-thirds say they actually do vote. That claim is not supported by the record, however, even when the election is for U.S. president. Three out of four households also reported high-speed Internet hookups, another number not supported by Internet providers in San Antonio. ETC says the margin of error is +/-3 percent, but surely one has to factor in a little telephone fudging.

Respondents were divided almost equally on whether is life is better, worse, or about the same these days in San Antonio, although most give high marks to city workers and the services they deliver, and say the level of services continues to improve each year.

From the City of San Antonio's 2014 Community Survey conducted by the ETC Institute.

Interestingly, the survey does not break out data for younger, more recent arrivals, the subject of many companies’ recruiting efforts and plenty of public debate over how best to appeal to talented workers and their families from other cities. Only one in three persons surveyed had a college degree.

Some might be surprised by citizen spending priorities. City Manager Sheryl Sculley will present the 2015 Proposed Budget to City Council Thursday. Citizens ranked basic services such as streets, drainage and sidewalks as their top choice for increased spending, and listed workforce development and education as the second most important priority. Pubic safety was third.

From the 2014 City of San Antonio's Community Survey conducted by the ETC Institute.

San Antonio Ranks High Nationally

“The City of San Antonio has one of the highest overall satisfaction ratings in the nation,” the ETC reported among its Major Findings. Looking at cities with populations of more than 250,000, San Antonio ranked 22 percent above the national average.

A solid majority of 70 percent rate city services as good to excellent, up a percentage point from the last survey in 2012 and four points since the first survey in 2008.

“The survey results are positive and demonstrate improvement in the city’s delivery of services,” Sculley said after the presentation Wednesday. “The survey also identifies opportunities for improvement. All in all, the results are positive and demonstrate our organization’s commitment to excellence.”

From the 2014 City of San Antonio's Community Survey conducted by the ETC Institute.

Citizens uniformly give high marks to civilian and uniformed city personnel, whether they are protecting people and property, maintaining streets, hauling solid waste, operating libraries, or answering the telephone at the 311 Call Center.

The strongest point of citizen dissatisfaction continues to be animal services, which translates to frustrations with the city’s high population of roaming strays and how to dispose of animals that can’t be placed for adoption.

Lifestyle

Loose dogs and feral cats aside, people continue to appreciate the San Antonio lifestyle. The city remains one of the most popular metro areas in the country for retirees, as a place to raise a family, and for its overall quality of life. Crime rates have steadily declined in the last decade, and 66 percent of those surveyed said they feel safe in the city, up from 61 percent two years ago.

One challenge for city officials will be replacing outgoing Police Chief William McManus, who is retiring in December and moving to an executive security position at CPS Energy.

From the 2014 City of San Antonio's Community Survey conducted by the ETC Institute.

Public Safety

Because crime rates have declined and people feel safe in San Antonio, it’s no surprise that citizens give police high grades, with the overall satisfaction level standing at 72 percent, five full percentage points above the national average. Only Fort Worth police ranked higher among major Texas metro areas.

Firefighters, judged largely by response time, EMS performance and limiting property loss, won even higher marks, with 91 percent of those surveyed satisfied or very satisfied, also five percent higher than the national average and tied with Oklahoma City for first among  regional surveys surveyed by ETC.

“We did well in the survey,” San Antonio Fire Department Chief Charles Hood said after the presentation. “It’s good to see people appreciate the job our firefighters do.”

Still, 70 percent said police and firefighters should “contribute to the cost of health care like civilian employees,” and only 11 percent supported uniform personnel not having to pay more. The balance — 19 percent — said they did not know how the issue should be resolved as the City and police union seek to restart stalled collective bargaining talks. A survey commissioned by the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce several months ago showed similar findings.

From the City of San Antonio's 2014 Community Survey conducted by the ETC Institute.

Basic Services

After public safety, citizens want the basics: streets, drainage, flood control, solid waste pickup, libraries, and parks. These are topics that don’t generate a lot of news headlines at City Hall, but they remain foremost on most people’s minds in the city. The city performs well above the national average for U.S. cities in these categories, according to the ETC report, and it continues to inch up each year in terms of improvement in the eyes of those surveyed.

Stray Animals

Where citizens find the City wanting is its response to animal care services and the runaway problem with stray dogs and cats, and what to do with thousands of unclaimed animals once captured. For a decade now, city officials have been moving in the direction of a no-kill policy, an aspirational goal that is probably unrealistic in a city where cultural attitudes among inner city populations result in neighborhoods plagued by roaming dogs and feral cats, some dangerous or carrying disease, and many actively breeding. It’s not the first time a survey shows people blaming city officials for a community problem the City is left to address.

‘Our Problems’

From the City of San Antonio's 2014 Community Survey conducted by the ETC Institute.

When citizens are asked what’s wrong with San Antonio, they point at themselves rather than city officials, citing community behaviors rather than the level of city services. Obesity, drug addiction and abuse, the dropout rate, teen pregnancy, poverty, and homelessness top the list, an indication that citizens have a pretty accurate understanding of the major problems in the city. People do want the City to provide a greater level of social services to its poorest citizens, including better access to health care and more spending on programs to alleviate the worst social problems.

Downtown

Nearly 60 percent of those polled think downtown has improved, either slightly or markedly. About 30 percent think things are about the same. Only a small percentage find downtown less appealing. That has to encourage City officials who have invested extensively in building a more vibrant downtown.

The 2015 Proposed Budget that Sculley will present to City Council on Thursday continues existing incentive plans for developers to build infill residential housing, and also funds the hiring of four new staff to oversee the City’s new Vacant Building Ordinance, which takes effect Jan. 1, 2015.

From the 2014 City of San Antonio's Community Survey conducted by the ETC Institute.

Public Transit

The survey is a snapshot of San Antonio’s transportation challenges. It remains the only major city in the United States without some form of light rail on the ground or the drawing board. Only three percent of those surveyed use VIA Metropolitan Transit’s bus service, and only one percent walk or ride bikes to work, while 93 percent use a personal vehicle as their daily mode of transportation.

The survey did not address the City’s previously planned $32 million contribution to VIA’s streetcar project. That support was informally withdrawn last week, well after the field work for the survey had been completed.

Libraries

Satisfaction with city libraries remains high. One interesting statistic in a city that is still far less wired than other Texas cities with a disproportionate percentage of San Antonio households lacking such tech tools as laptops, tablets, and high-speed wireless: Only six percent of library users prefer e-books over print versions.

Sustainability and Historic Preservation

The City continues to receive very high marks – 88 percent – for historical preservation, and surprisingly, 66 percent express support for the City’s growing sustainability initiatives. A much higher percentages want to see the City do more to improve air quality, water quality, pedestrian, cycling and transit options. Nine out of 10 respondents said the City’s recycling program is easy to use.  Whether taxpayers will pay for such improvements was not addressed in the survey.

From the City of San Antonio's 2014 Community Survey conducted by the ETC Institute.

Citizen Contact with City Hall

It’s interesting that citizens have no shortage of opinions, good and bad, on everything from services to the poor to the value of sports facilities, yet only one in five citizens say they had any contact with police, fire or civilian City workers in the last year. For most citizens, services are delivered, but because they do not get arrested, have a house fire, fall prey to criminals, or need to visit a City office for services, they simply do not have any contact or interaction with the 11,300 people employed by the City.

Perhaps that’s one measure of good city services. They are just there when you need them, and taken for granted.

*Featured/top image: The San Antonio skyline looking west. Photo by Melissa Burnett.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is editor of the San Antonio Report.