Survey says: Aspen spends far more than Pitkin County on public opinion

by Carolyn Sackariason, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer

An analysis of government expenditures on surveys gauging public opinion in the past three years shows that the city of Aspen has outspent Pitkin County by more than $130,000.

That’s partly because the city picked up two-thirds of the tab for gathering citizen input in the preparation of the Aspen Area Community Plan (AACP) update, which has been in the works since 2008 and is still awaiting approval.

As of April of last year — the last recorded expenditure provided to the Aspen Daily News — the total price tag for 13 surveys and keypad sessions designed to get citizen input that’s supposedly incorporated into the updated AACP document is $64,976.09.

The city’s portion of that is $48,516.39; the county’s is $16,459.70, or one-third of the total cost. The majority of the 10-year plan affects the city, which is why the Aspen government is paying for the bulk of citizen outreach.

Not factoring in the AACP costs, the city has spent $100,844 more than the county on public surveys. Five surveys and one needs assessment for the city has cost taxpayers $122,344 since 2009. The county has conducted two surveys that combined cost $21,500.

Determining whether a Wheeler Opera House expansion was necessary and if the public would support it cost taxpayers a total of $60,675. Aspen City Council eventually bailed on the estimated $30 million expansion after it became clear that some elected officials would not support the project.

Duncan Webb Management Services of New York in 2010 charged the city $46,675 to delve into the Wheeler Opera House’s current use, financial performance and the demand in the local market for new arts facilities. The study included “physical planning” for what an expansion should look like, and a survey of other sites around town that could accommodate or be refashioned into a new theater. Another element was a business plan for a new theater, including a theoretical pro forma.

A year before that assessment was done, the city paid Dillon-based Venturoni Surveys and Research $14,000 to conduct a survey of Aspen residents to see if they would approve of the project. That survey found 46 percent in favor of expansion, 40 percent opposed and 14 percent undecided. 

In 2011, council approved a $24,195 contract with National Research Center of Boulder to survey about 4,000 city and county registered voters on their opinions of what should be done with the entrance to Aspen.

The results showed that 60 percent of voters said they favor an unrestricted four-lane entrance to Aspen. The council this past June gave the results a fairly ho-hum reaction, with some members voicing their displeasure with how the questions were posed and stating that the results were inconclusive.

The decades-long issue of the congested entrance is still on the back-burner. But at least the city has in its possession a 75-page report on the results, thick with cross tabs isolating responses based on geography, age and other factors.

Since 2009, the city has paid National Research Center $37,474 for three surveys, conducted annually, to gauge how Aspen residents feel about their government’s performance. The citizen survey serves as a consumer report card that allows respondents to rate their satisfaction with the quality of life, local facilities and services, among other questions. The average cost of the survey is about $12,500 a year.

Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock said he has budgeted for a similar survey this year.

“I do think that having some objective random sampling of the public asking to see if we are doing well” is beneficial, he said. “I think there is value to those kinds of questions.”

The county has conducted only two public surveys since 2008 outside of the AACP. One sought to gauge community sentiment prior to writing a ballot question and holding an election on a tax increase to pay for roads, which eventually failed at the polls; another asked whether voters would pass an ultimately successful tax increase to support health and human services.

“If it’s not a slam dunk, why would we be spending money on the elections process?” Peacock asked rhetorically.

County voters by a slim margin denied the property tax hike for roads in 2008, even though the telephone survey showed 68 percent of voters in support.

“That’s right when the economy was turning and a lot of voters flipped,” Peacock said.

But surveying county voters on whether they’d approve increasing the taxation rate for the Healthy Community Fund and renewing it apparently paid off. Voters last year approved the tax, which is expected to raise roughly $1.9 million annually, an anticipated increase of $464,000 over current revenues.

The county also spends $250 a year for an online-based service called “Survey Monkey,” which produces unscientific surveys to help the government take the public’s temperature on an issue or get feedback from constituents. Recent polls have asked people about naming open space trails, nonprofit grantees, health and human services funding sources, and Pitkin County TV and radio.

The city of Aspen also uses Survey Monkey and spends $200 a year for it, according to assistant city manager Barry Crook.