2007 American Fork Quality of Life Survey

David Rodeback

I attended an interesting hour of last Thursday's American Fork City Council planning session. Dan Jones, the big Utah name in opinion polling, presented the results of a poll his firm conducted in June in American Fork about American Fork -- its government services, the quality of life generally, and related topics of interest to city leaders.

American Fork City's public communications consultant Linda Walton called in "the first opinion survey in American Fork," which I suppose means the first City-sponsored, scientific survey, or at least the only such survey anyone can presently remember. A few years ago I myself helped craft, administer, analyze, and present to the City Council a survey for American Fork Neighbors in Action a few years ago, but we didn't have the budget for scientific, random sampling. Dan Jones' survey is more professional, more scientific, more comprehensive, more reliable, and to my mind worth the $10,000 price tag. The value of the results to city leaders and residents is potentially much greater.

Miscellaneous Notes to Bear in Mind

Dan Jones and Associates, Inc., interviewed a sampling of 401 American Fork residents by telephone for 15 minutes each on weekday evenings and on Saturdays in June. This was before a bridge collapsed in Minneapolis, before a coal mine collapsed in Utah, and before the current tempest in a teapot arose over a Highland street called 9600 North becoming . . . what it already mostly is. So views of some matters -- infrastructure and the responsiveness of City officials and employees, for example -- might be a bit different now than in June. In any case, the expressed intent is to conduct a similar poll annually henceforth, which makes sense. Some of the numbers have more value when they show trends over time.

The margin of error on the poll is +/- 4.8 percent, which is calculated using the sample size and the population size. The math behind it isn't important here, but the significance of the number is. If an actual poll result is 63.2 percent, then we can be confident -- to a reasonable, statistical certainty -- that the result of asking the same question to the entire adult population of the city would be within 4.8 percent either way of that result. One of the implications of this is that if two different results are within 4.8 percent of each other, they're so close that the poll cannot confidently tell them apart. In fact, if they're within twice that margin of each other, the poll can't be very certain they would not be equal if the whole adult population of American Fork were asked the same question.

The Whole Thing

Here's the entire PowerPoint presentation from the meeting, repackaged at LocalCommentary.com as a PDF file for easy viewing with Adobe Reader (so you don't need PowerPoint). It was presented at a public meeting and is now a public document, but the link is to my own copy on my server. You may prefer to view it in smaller pieces during the following discussion of highlight.

Broad Questions and Answers

Population: American Fork's population is split roughly equally between those who have lived in American Fork ten years or more, and those who have lived here less than ten years. Nearly 30 percent have lived in American Fork less than five years. (See Page 3.)

Likes: The top three answers to the question, what do you like most about American Fork, were location, the people (neighbors), and the small-town/rural feeling. (See Page 4.) Two of those may survive the next decade or two, but one of them, the small town/rural feeling, most likely will not. Dan Jones said he couldn't remember a city where the number of respondents citing people or neighbors when asked this question was as high as the 16 percent in this poll. However, note that the items listed with lower numbers are not necessarily negative results. For example, only two percent said "mountains/lake/scenery" is what they like most. This doesn't mean that only two percent like "mountains/lake/scenery" or think they are good, just that they didn't rank them first on their list.

Dislikes -- That Is, Traffic and Growth: By far the most popular answers to the question, what do you like least about American Fork, were closely related: "growth/getting too crowded" and "traffic." (See Page 5.) Likewise, when asked what one improvement is most important in the coming years, the only two specific answers in double digits -- together making up one-third of the total -- related to traffic. (See Page 8.) Note that these and the previous question were not multiple choice, but "unaided" -- meaning that the respondents were simply asked what they like and dislike most, and their answers were split into categories as part of the analysis.

Note also, for example, that some who think the American Fork Library's collection is mediocre or that we need a county-wide (or north county-wide) library system or consortium might be disappointed that library issues scored so low on "one improvement" question, a mere one percent. But this doesn't mean people think the library is unimportant; it's just not the first thing on their minds. The same is true of other issues, no doubt, such as better planning and zoning, mass transit, and cleaning up yards, and there is evidence later in the results to suggest this. (See below.)

The Really Big Like: No less than 93 percent of respondents would "definitely" or "probably" recommend American Fork to others as a good place to live. (See Page 6.) That seems like a very high number to me, as indeed it does to Dan Jones, who has also polled for Salt Lake City, Tooele, Sandy, Mapleton, Payson, Logan, Cedar City, and municipalities in Utah and elsewhere. On one hand, this is a very happy number; people are content, here. On the other, if you're a politician, you might have to conclude that there's nowhere for this number to go but down.

City Services: Among the 18 City services in one question, American Fork City's garbage service is very highly rated, as are sewer, library, fitness services, parks and recreation. Most other services are highly rated. The six bringing up the rear still have overall positive ratings, but were quite a bit lower than the rest: arts, animal control, broadband, recycling, road maintenance, and planning and zoning, with the last two rated lowest. See Pages 9 thru 11.) In another similar question, the Steel Days celebration rated very high, as did city parks. (See Page 12.)

Safety, Officials Who Listen, Etc.: Most people feel very safe in American Fork; this number, Jones said, is unusually high for a city on the Wasatch Front. People are less inclined to feel that their views are considered by City decision-makers; I suspect this number is up significantly in the last two years, but we don't have any hard data either way. (See Page 13.)

What's Important to You?: Less traffic congestion, open space, affordable housing, and walking and bike trails clearly lead the list, even if two of these (open space and trails) are pulling somewhat in the opposite direction from one of the others (affordable housing). Main Street, "additional arts activities," and wildlife habitat brought up the rear, but still scored on the important side of the median. (See Pages 14 and 15.)

What Should Be the City's Priorities?: In what may be the most important question, where elected officials are concerned, the top three answers by a significant margin were preserving open space, cleaning up nuisances (like junk cars), and encouraging volunteerism. Main Street, new parks, and more shopping choices brought up the rear. (See Pages 17 and 18.)

In the Polling Vernacular, A "Push": Responses to questions about how the land in the south of American Fork should be developed and where in the city commercial and economic growth should be focused probably reveal no useful information. (See Pages 19 thru 22.)

Specific Issues

Retail Development: There is strong agreement that large retail stores negatively impact local businesses and that large retail stores (the "big boxes") should be located in American Fork. This suggests that the public generally knows the impact of such development and thinks the benefits are worth that price. (See Page 24.)

Preserving Historic Downtown: Discounting the neutral responses, the percentage of respondents who think it's "important" or "very important" to preserve historic buildings downtown overwhelms those who don't think so, by a margin of about seven to one. A smaller but significant majority feels this way about the Harrington School in particular, but there is little agreement about what to do with it. Building an arts center gets the most votes, but not an overwhelming number. (See Pages 25 thru 27.)

The Rec Center: Most have used it, and an overwhelming percentage of those who have used it report being "somewhat" or "very" satisfied with the facility. (See Pages 28 and 29)

Traffic and Roads: Respondents tend to be much less satisfied with traffic and roads in American Fork than they are with the Recreation Center (see above). They tend to be especially concerned over current related issues of traffic congestion and the availability of public transportation. (See Pages 30 and 31.)

Major Construction: Residents considering major upcoming projects such as I-15 reconstruction and the installation of the city's pressurized irrigation system highly value communication and alternate routes, in addition to doing small sections at a time, rather than all at once. (See Pages 32-34.)

City Staff and Officials: Numbers related to the responsiveness and professionalism of City staff and officials are probably fairly high for municipalities, but would be pretty low for businesses who really value their customers. (See Pages 35 thru 39.)

Information Sources: I was surprised at the very low percentage of respondents who said they'd most like to receive information from the City at the City web site. The utility bill and the "city newsletter" scored very hgh. (Are they the same?) (See Page 40.)

Demographics, Etc.: Pages 42 and 43 list the basic demographics of the sample group and record suggestions for City officals.

Dan Jones' Commentary

Dan Jones himself seemed inclined to wax rather pedantic and to stray into policy recommendations, which is a bit offputting in one's pollster. Nevertheless, he had some interesting observations along the way, include the following.

Three percent listing City government as their biggest dislike is neither high nor a particular problem. Five percent would mean it's time to start worrying, he said. Fifteen percent would suggest serious disenchantment, and 25 percent would suggest very serious credibility problems between the people and their government.

The most common park complaints were the lack of restrooms at most parks, and packs of roving dogs.

When Jones does polls nationwide about perceptions of Utah, and coming to Utah, the top question on respondents' minds are is the extent of Mormon (LDS) Church influence, followed by the quality of the schools and the quality of the library.

Interesting Questions

Finally, in the face of all these answers I have some questions, which we'll assume for the present are rhetorical questions, not intended to be answered. One or two of them simply couldn't be answered in present circumstances.

Will the number of people who dislike growth and traffic just go up forever and congestion increases, or will there be some sort of equilibrium as people grow accustomed to bigger-city traffic and other similar situations, and the valley catches up as best it can with the situation?

Would the two percent who raised negative police-related issues in answering a couple of questions have been significantly higher a few years ago, when the AFPD was relatively poorly paid and also was sued relatively often?

Are American Fork City Council candidates, incumbent and otherwise, glued to this poll as they craft their messages for the fall campaign? Some of the information could be very valuable to them. It's the sort of polling most small campaigns cannot afford.

Are elected City officials in our system of representative government morally obligated to attempt to preserve the characteristics of their city which most people like? If so, at what cost? And should they do what is in their own judgment best for the city, or what the residents think is important? If they do the former conscientiously, will the voters forgive them for not always doing the latter? I suppose these answers come in another sort of poll, the larger one we take in early November.

In any case, let's do this again next year, shall we?

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