County residents happy, see room for improvement

by Brent Gardner-Smith, Aspen Journalism
A recent survey by a market research firm hired by Pitkin County shows that people are happy living in Pitkin County and generally think highly of the services the county government is providing.

Ninety-six percent of survey respondents rated Pitkin County as an “excellent” or “good” place to live. And not one person said that Pitkin County was a “below average” or “poor” place to live.

But that doesn’t mean paradise is perfect.

The survey of 525 Pitkin County residents in February by ETC Institute of Olathe, Kan., asked people to pick the three items in a variety of areas they think the county should focus on over the next two years.

The results of that exercise amount to a draft to-do list for the Pitkin County commissioners, who plan to review the responses at an upcoming two-day retreat.

County residents think the county should manage growth, restrict the location and type of development, maintain healthy streamflows, protect children from abuse and neglect, improve county roadways, ensure community emergency preparedness, and improve recycling drop-off centers.

“This gives you a sense of what people are concerned about and what’s important to folks, so you know generally what to focus on,” said Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock.

The survey also identified the issues that citizens care the most about, but also have the highest levels of dissatisfaction with.

On that list are the county’s response to mental health issues, protection of families from domestic violence, economic sustainability, the process for obtaining construction permits, and availability of parking.

One response that really stands out for Peacock is the high importance, and low satisfaction, ratings given to the “county’s response to mental health issues.”

Only 39 percent said they were either satisfied or very satisfied with the county’s response on mental health issues, compared with ratings from 69 to 79 percent for the other community health items in the same question.

And 27 percent of county’s residents said they were either dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the county’s response to mental health issues.

“This is the issue, to me, that from our citizen attitude survey, people are saying they are most concerned about having improvement on,” Peacock said, acknowledging Pitkin County’s relatively high suicide rate.

Peacock said he and his staff are trying to determine whether the problem is the community doesn’t have “the right portfolio of services,” or if it is that “when people are in crisis they are not aware that help is available.”

He added that a quick response by the county could be to make people aware of available services, and then also to review the level of local services to see if there are gaps.

“A survey is never going to answer those questions to that level, but it can tell us what the community is worried about and now we can go spend a little bit more time and effort on it,” Peacock said.

The people who responded to the survey are a relatively close reflection of Pitkin County’s demographics, Peacock said.

The respondents were primarily full-time residents (93 percent), white (90 percent), registered voters (90 percent), over 35 years old (78 percent), and property owners (74 percent).

Most had lived in the county for over 20 years (59 percent), almost half live in Aspen (46 percent), and over a third make over $100,000 (35 percent).

The survey found that the county services and initiatives that people are the happiest with, or are “very satisfied” or “satisfied” with, are trails and open space (88 percent), water quality and quantity (83 percent), animal safety (81 percent) and wildlife protection (77 percent).

Residents also gave generally positive responses in areas such as public safety, transportation, the landfill and recycling, the airport, the clerk’s office and special events.

The services and initiatives that got the highest “dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied” ratings, were the process for obtaining building permits (44 percent), the process for conducting building inspections (27 percent), and the response to building code violations (25 percent).

Another issue residents feel is important, but are not happy with, is “how well the county is managing growth.”

The issue got poor marks, with a relatively low 54 percent of residents satisfied and a high 46 percent of residents dissatisfied.

The results of another set of questions about zoning also shows that most county residents are supportive of the county’s current growth policies.

They see “great benefit” or “some benefit” in maintaining the county’s rural character (77 percent), in restrictions on development in backcountry areas (75 percent) and limitations on density (73 percent).

The seven-page survey was mailed to a random sample of county residents with a cover letter, a stamped return envelope, a link to an online survey, and a 1-800 number for a phone survey.

Follow-up calls were made a week later and an offer was made to complete the survey on the phone. The survey results have a 95 percent level of confidence plus or minus 4.3 percent.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is an independent nonprofit news organization. More at www.aspenjournalism.org.