Citizen survey

A word bubble produced by citizen feedback to the annual city survey shows that housing and affordability were the top concerns. 

The citizens of Aspen are highly satisfied with their quality of life, but think the city should do more to provide affordable housing and retail options, according to the annual citizen survey, presented to council Monday night.

This is the first time that council has had a specific work session to go over survey results, as in past years they have been provided the data but have not discussed it publicly. The presentation was made by Karen Harrington, director of quality for the city, and Debbie Balch, president of Elevated Insights, the research firm hired to conduct and analyze this year’s report.  

“You are knocking it out of the park compared to most of America, but that doesn't mean there is not room for improvement,” Balch told the council.

Five hundred twenty eight people responded to the questionnaire this year, and all but 20 elected to do so electronically, a new option for 2019. Seventy four percent of respondents work in Aspen, 40 percent earn less than $50,000 annually and 45 percent have lived in Aspen more than 20 years. 

The income demographics greatly influenced respondents’ perception of Aspen’s quality of life. According to Balch’s report, “38% of residents earning less than $50K are satisfied with the livability of Aspen vs. 68% for those earning $150K or more.”

The public transportation system, recreation opportunities and public safety came in on top as areas in which residents are particularly satisfied. Ninety five percent of residents said they felt safe in the city.

“I’ve never seen a number that high,” Balch said.

However, the older respondents were more prone to say that there should be an increase in law enforcement.

On the flip side, only 29 percent of respondents said they were satisfied with how the city handles pressure from developers, and only 6 percent agreed that young families can afford to live and work in the city.

Women were more likely than men to say that quiet spaces, open space, and arts and culture are important to them. Men gave the city a worse ranking than women when asked if they felt the city does a good job incorporating public feedback in decision making.

Along with the transition to online access to the survey, this year’s questionnaire was opened up to the general population, whereas in past years targeted mailings just went out to registered voters. Balch told the council that means for the first time, the city is seeing a more accurate representation of residents, and that the average age and income levels are both lower than past years. 

Because of the change in participants, and a change to the ranking scale in the questions, it is hard to use this year’s data to extrapolate trending sentiment.

“In short, any comparisons to prior surveys should be taken with a grain of salt,” the report states.

Harrington said it was time to readjust the survey style, even at the expense of disrupting exact year-over-year trendlines. 

“We had the same methodology for many years but we felt like we had not had that opportunity to step back and ask what is important to Aspen now,” she said.

The 2019 survey grouped questions into the priority areas identified by new City Manager Sara Ott, and the results will be provided to each city department to allow them to think big-picture about future planning.

“[Ott] wanted to have some way to more effectively organize the work at a 30,000-foot strategic level, not just down at the individual project level,” Harrington said.

She said this year’s results are more actionable than the feedback received in the past, and can go directly into shaping things such as the city’s community engagement strategy.

“We are hoping that with this new set of data we can use it for something more substantive,” Harrington said.

In past years city outreach has received low marks via the survey. This year the city hired its first ever communications director Tracy Trulove, who is trying new ways of engagement such as last week’s multi-topic open house at the Limelight Hotel.

“That comes on the tail of the survey from the year before that [residents] want more, they want it different, and we are finding ways to provide that,” Trulove said.

This year respondents said they still want more communication and feel that they are finding out about things later in the process than they desire, but that they are happy with the quality of information when it is provided by the city.

“There appears to be some recognition of the fact that the city is working on communication,” Harrington said.

City councilmember Rachel Richards said in the meeting that she believed the results were more of a reflection of the old guard at the city. She pointed out that the new council had been seated just a few months when the survey opened in August.

The survey results showed that community members want the city spending its money in line with locals’ needs. Richards pointed out that the budget lines up with the survey metrics.

“Many of the things that are rated very high are getting adequate spending,” she said.

She said addressing the lower-rated categories of housing and local retail is a difficult task.

“The devil is in the details for every challenge,” Richards said.

Councilmember Ward Hauenstein said he was disheartened to see the community’s low marks on the city’s housing efforts, citing the multiple new developments underway currently to increase the affordable housing stock in town.

“We are spending so much time and money, and satisfaction is in the 20th percentile,” Hauenstein said. 

He also wondered what legal action the city could take to help promote locally-serving businesses such as subsidized rent or city-owned retail properties.

“It seems as though the citizens are asking for more involvement of government in these areas, which leads to a bigger government, which leads to more of a socialistic bend on it,” Hauensten said.”That just leaves us open to (criticism that) the government is too strict and too involved.”

In January, Harrington will begin sitting down with each city department to present specific deep dives into the data that will help direct strategic planning. 

Interim assistant city manager Alissa Farrell said providing the survey online is also a way to begin an open dialog with the community about potential improvements.

“We want to have an open dialog, and share the information, and be able to converse with our community about the results and where we are at, and make sure it’s an inclusive and actionable conversation,” Farrell said.

Balch already complimented the participation of the local population. She said other communities don’t see citizens taking the time to write their thoughts and offer concrete suggestions for change, but that Aspenites wrote “a book.”

“You have a lot of people who genuinely spent time writing a full page worth of thoughts,” she told the council. “That just shows they care.”

Hauenstein requested that the city capitalize on the public input.

“If we have indications that people want to get involved, let’s not drop the ball on that,” he said.

Mayor Torre complimented the report and the organization of findings by strategic goal.

“I think it gives us a lot of insight, Some great news and of course some items that we need to keep working on,” he said.

He pointed out that the areas that need the most improvement all pertain to affordability in one way or another.

“Living in Aspen, from my sense, is the best place possible,” Torre said. “But it comes with its challenges.”

Alycin Bektesh is a reporter for the Aspen Daily News. She can be reached at Alycin@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @alycinwonder.