About a year ago, says Terry Simonson, chief of staff for Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr., the administration began working on a plan for Tulsa's future -- specifically, one that would have the city poised to move forward, once a severe recession had run its course.
That plan had several elements, the first of which was an examination of how Tulsa had approached its fiscal policy, budgeting and planning. The most obvious manifestation of that, Simonson said, was the completion of the KPMG audit of city services that came out last fall.
The second element, he said, fell into place last week with the release of a survey of 1,800 Tulsa households across the city that essentially asks citizens to rate municipal government on the quality of those services, how important they are and the direction in which the city is headed.
"The reason we timed the release of the citizen survey for right now is that we're doing the budget, and we will take the citizen survey and the results, and those will be blended into specific department budgets," Simonson said, explaining how that public input will have a direct impact on budget priorities. "This is absolutely coming at a perfect time for fiscal planning for next year."
As an example, Simonson said it was obvious from the survey results that Tulsans place a high priority on three specific areas in code enforcement: the cleanup of junk or other debris from private property, the mowing and cutting of weeds and the removal of abandoned or inoperable vehicles.
"We're definitely looking at putting resources into areas of code enforcement that polled so strongly -- and polled strongly citywide," he said.
Ultimately, Simonson said, administration officials will initiate the third part of their plan -- measuring the performance of city services, particularly the ones that have been identified as a priority by city officials and citizens.
Simonson's enthusiasm over the receipt of the survey results was obvious. He had a strong retort for those who believe attention to the survey will wane in a matter of days, with the report then being put on a shelf to draw dust.
"Anybody who has read this report cover to cover would never say that," he said, explaining that the survey is unprecedented in the city's history. "We've never asked citizens, 'What does the city of Tulsa need to do to grow the economy?' When we asked, we got six pages of ideas. When we asked, 'What can the city of Tulsa do to help neighborhoods?' we got seven pages of ideas. When we asked, 'What can Tulsa do to help make people feel safe in their neighborhoods?' we got 18 pages of responses.
"When people have an opportunity to come forward with new ideas, we get (feedback) on a wide scale," he said. "When we approached this survey last year, we did it from the standpoint of, 'If you had 20 minutes alone with the mayor, what would you tell him about the city?' "
The survey consisted of 103 questions, took 15 to 20 minutes to complete and was conducted by telephone. A total of 200 households in each of the city's nine City Council districts were chosen at random to participate. The survey was conducted by Oklahoma-based Shapard Research, and its $51,000 cost was covered by the Tulsa Community Foundation.
The firm's Bill Shapard indicated at a Feb. 23 City Hall press conference where the survey results were presented that he was surprised so many Tulsans were willing to devote that much time to the project.
"In his professional opinion, it was almost unheard of that you could keep people on the phone that long," Simonson said. "He said that indicated to him that people are proud of Tulsa and they love living here, and that, given the opportunity to contribute to their city in a survey, they're not going to miss it."
The survey found that Tulsans are strongly satisfied overall with more than 70 percent rating the city as a good or excellent place in which to live.
Even two days after the release of the results, Simonson was still gushing over some aspects of it. He was particularly pleased with a section that seemed to relate to citizens' perceptions of his boss.
"I think the most promising portion or message the mayor received from the citizens is that a particularly high number, over 50 percent, believe he's leading the city in the right direction," Simonson said. "Given everything that's happened -- the national recession, the budget cutbacks ... that really is encouraging, given the difficult decisions he had to be made over the last 12 or 13 months."
Simonson cited other survey findings that pleased him, including strong support for the KPGM audit and the suggestions it offered, as well as the high level of support for the quality of city services.
"That was very gratifying and reassuring," he said. "It's a strong indication we're doing the right things and going in the right direction."
Simonson acknowledged it also was a little unexpected, given the fact that the city was forced to reduce or eliminate many of those services last year because of rapidly falling sales tax receipts. He believes the positive feedback from Tulsans stems from the fact that few of them blame the mayor for those financial difficulties.
"They don't find him at fault for having to make tough decisions," Simonson said. "And that goes to the credibility of those who took the survey. I think it's a vote of confidence and gives an indication that people think we're doing better than most places and that the mayor is moving the city through a time of crisis in a way they appreciate."
There were other surprises, as well, he said.
"It was interesting for me to note that, when asked to list their concerns, nowhere in the top 12 was crime mentioned," Simonson said. "Typically, you would think, based on how many nightly newscasts start with two or three or four crime stories, you would find that more toward the top. But it wasn't there."
It also appears to contradict the experiences many city councilors have had lately at town hall meetings and other personal encounters with their constituents. Many of them have indicated over the past several weeks that public concerns over crime seem to be spiking in Tulsa, with many residents expressing the fear that they no longer feel safe in their neighborhood.
But that fear was not conveyed in the survey, which found that 87 percent of respondents feel very safe or somewhat safe walking in their neighborhood during the day and 54 percent feel very safe or somewhat safe walking in their neighborhood at night.
Simonson theorized that discrepancy might be a result of the fact that many of those who attend town hall meetings or contact their councilor are motivated to do so because they have been a victim of a crime or know someone who has been. That doesn't necessarily translate to a large percentage of residents citywide, he believes.
"How much is reality and how much is perception?" he asked. "According to the survey, only one-third of the people had had contact with the police in the last year, and lot of those were not even necessarily because they had been a victim of a crime."
The full survey results can be found online at cityoftulsa.org/managingchange.
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