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Ashland to survey community about budget priorities

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneAshland City Hall.

A divided Ashland City Council approved Tuesday an agreement with the Southern Oregon University Research Center for a community survey focused on budget priorities and options for resolving the city’s financial deficit.

Interim City Manager Gary Milliman recommended the council authorize an agreement with the research center for the survey, appoint a subcommittee of councilors to work with staff on preparing preliminary questions, and retain marketing consultant services to assist with community outreach, including creation of a webpage, up to $5,000.

“The questions on the one-page, double-sided survey will be constructed in consultation with the city of Ashland,” according to proposal materials by the SOU Research Center. “These questions will be oriented around asking the respondent to make choices between budget alternatives.”

Councilor Stephen Jensen’s motion to approve the staff recommendations passed 4-2, with Gina DuQuenne and Shaun Moran voting no.

The anonymous survey will be mailed to all Ashland utility users. Residents can expect to receive an introductory postcard starting in late February.

“In order to construct the budget, we are assuming, but not guaranteeing, a 30% response rate (3,300 surveys returned),” according to survey proposal materials. “As the budget priorities survey will be a household-level population survey, the city’s public relations campaign will be very important in maximizing the response rate.”

Five previous surveys conducted by the SOU Research Center using random or stratified random sampling yielded response rates above 20% and as high as 55%, according to the proposal. The research center budgeted $32,313 for the survey.

According to a timeline included in materials, questions will be finalized by the end of January, followed by a public relations campaign rollout. A dedicated webpage is slated to go live in early March. Surveys will be mailed the second week of March and open for responses through mid-April, preceding a report of findings in June.

Appointed subcommittee members will bring draft questions back in front of the full council before the research team re-casts them, Milliman said.

“In order for the respondents to understand the implications of what they are choosing, the city will write brief backgrounds (pros and cons, if appropriate) for each decision on the survey, and the city will also construct a webpage that will contain a full discussion of the pros and cons of each decision on the survey,” according to proposal materials.

Residents will be able to visit the webpage for detailed information about the issues and questions, which the research center has recommended be concise in the mailer, Milliman said.

Prior to the vote, DuQuenne said City Council listening sessions planned for spring would be a suitable substitute for the survey.

“The listening session and putting our time and our efforts toward letting people know ‘this is the date, this is the time,’ to me is more impactful and it’s one on one, and I feel like we could get a better response,” DuQuenne said.

Councilor Tonya Graham said the city has initiated a significant conversation with the community regarding service prioritization, and open website surveys or listening sessions typically attract people already following the city’s work, failing to reflect general public opinion.

“The engagement piece around letting the folks in this community know that the council is looking for their feedback because action is going to be taken, is a big part of why this will have a better return rate than what we might see on a cold-call mailing,” Graham said.

Moran said the listening sessions would provide an opportunity to gather important information, and speculated that response rates over 5% are unlikely, based on career sales experience, he said.

Councilor Stefani Seffinger said structuring questions, information and outreach to help the public understand the implications of long-term financial planning will be key to the survey’s effectiveness.

“There’s a large part of our population that we don’t hear from,” Seffinger said. “People hear from people on NextDoor and maybe some people that they like to talk to, but they don’t know what the majority of people in Ashland really want, and I think it’s really important to find that out by asking them.”

Reach reporter Allayana Darrow at adarrow@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497.