Fort Smith Administrator Ray Gosack called results from the National Citizens Survey (NCS) conducted in August "startling.”
Gosack had previously written in a memo that "In 37 service areas for which comparisons could be made, Fort Smith ranked higher than the benchmark in 2 service areas, similar in 15, and lower in 20."
“I think one of the surprises was citizens' feelings about the direction of the city. Less than half felt that we were doing an excellent or good job. It was somewhat perplexing for me because in March, we went to the citizens with a sales tax election, and they overwhelmingly supported all the items on the ballot," Gosack said. "So I thought after that election citizens were very supportive of what we were doing and thought we were going in the right direction. Then, six months later, we get these survey results that say, 'No, there's still concern about the direction the city's heading.'"
Communities that participate in the NCS largely answer the same questions regarding how respondents rate their cities as a place to live, which includes "the various opportunities available – from recreation to public transportation – and how often respondents visit with their neighbors," explained Fort Smith Communications Manager Tracy Winchell in July prior to the 1,100-household rollout.
(Only 324 households responded – about 29% – which falls between the average response rate of 25% to 40%, Gosack said.)
The surveys also sought input regarding opinions about the quality of city services as well as the level of customer service provided by the different departments. Three of the "drivers" that concerned Gosack were "police services, appearance of the community, and communications and trust.
Regarding the police concerns, Gosack said it was "perplexing ... that about a fourth of the respondents said they'd been the victim of a crime but had not reported it to the police. Why is that? That's the next question for us."
Gosack admitted that he was also perplexed by citizens' concerns for the appearance of the community, pointing out that the city had "adopted a new Unified Development Ordinance a few years ago, and we're seeing the results of that with new projects constructed. But we still had about half the respondents not satisfied with the appearance of new developments in the community."
Gosack continued: "Is it residential development? Is it commercial development? Is it all types of development? What is it that people are concerned about? Has our Unified Development Ordinance not gone far enough, or did it cover other things?"
On public trust, the third "driver," the survey revealed that only 38% believe Fort Smith is on the right track, and only 42% believe the local government welcomes citizen involvement. The overall favorable rating of Fort Smith was only 47% in this area.
To help learn from the results, Gosack said that "next month we'll have a contract" with a consulting firm to develop a comprehensive plan update, the city's first in 10 years.
Explaining how the plan update would work, Gosack admitted, "Clearly we need citizens involved in helping us define what the issues and what the concerns are, and even in identifying what a desired outcome is."
The process would be "at least 12 months," Gosack said, and would entail public meetings as well as "opportunities online, so if people can't come to a meeting, they can still get involved by providing comments via the website."
"Now we need to ask, for example, with the quality of new development, what is it that people expect with new development? Is the concern with signage? Is it landscaping? Is it the materials that are used to construct a building? Is it the design of the buildings? Those are the kind of details that we'll need public feedback on as we go through the update," Gosack said.
Full survey results are available at this link as part of the Oct. 23 study session packet available at the city's official website.