Council should ignore strategic planning survey

Why should the Washougal City Council ignore the conclusions of the Strategic Planning Team? Much of the work done so far has been based on a precariously unscientific survey. The Strategic Planning Team’s survey results demonstrate the danger of relying upon data that may not be meaningful.

At the 2011 Spring Council Retreat, the City Council authorized a Strategic Planning Team to reach out to the community, survey the desired direction of the city, and report back to the Council. The intent was to map the future of the city. During the last Washougal City Council workshop on Nov. 14, the Strategic Planning Team presented their second progress report to the Council. The bulk of the presentation concentrated on results of the Strategic Planning Team’s survey. Unfortunately, that survey might steer the City Council to misinterpret the desire of the citizens.

Of the 14 survey questions, perhaps the most important questions asked were numbers 3 and 12. Question 3 asks respondents “Are you willing to pay for the following services through taxes or alternative financing partnerships with the city?” It then lists nine city services from “Code enforcement” to “Police services” to “Quality drinking water.” The options for each are either yes or no. The question is vague for two reasons. First, the question hints at increased tax dollars, but leaves open for interpretation whether it means “for which services are you willing to pay additional tax dollars?” or “which services are worth paying for out of existing tax dollars?” Depending upon which question is answered, the respondent would give the Council two different indicators. Second, no matter how many additional taxes the citizens wish to pay for these services, the City will always have to prioritize. Even if the city’s budget were doubled, the City Council would have to decide how much of the pie to dedicate for police or parks, streets or code enforcement.

The survey results indicated that 81 percent were in favor of taxes for police. When the results are looked at another way, do we really believe that 19 percent of Washougal residents are not interested in paying for any police services? Are there that many anarchists in Washougal? Nearly 20 percent of respondents did not want to pay for police services, and this should be an obvious tip-off that they were likely answering a different question than the 80 percent that wanted to pay for police services. The alternative is to assume that the vast majority of respondents are interested in increasing taxes for most city services.

Survey question 12 is the most obvious anomaly. This seemingly innocent question asks respondents how large the city should be at some undefined future date. It states: “In your opinion, how big should Washougal grow (current population is 14,580).” The only options given are 20,000, 25,000, 30,000, 35,000, and 40,000. A full 81 percent of respondents indicated that the future size of the city “should” be 20,000 or 25,000 people. There were no options to select less than 20,000. Therefore, we are not given any data as to how many citizens believe 14,850 is too large already. We receive this insight from examining the data’s sharp departure from a bell curve distribution. Far from a bell curve, the results are more like a lopsided slope, with a pot hole at the end. While four of the five possible responses indicate a trend of declining desire for growth, only 0.7 percent indicated 35,000. What makes this answer such an anomaly is that it is sandwiched between 11.6 percent support for 30,000 and 6.2 percent support for 40,000. Asked another way, do we really believe that 35,000 is such a horrifying a number that only nine respondents (less than one percent) chose it while nearly 18 percent believe that either 30,000 or 40,000 is more appropriate? That does not make sense. It indicates that the respondents were likely answering different questions, yet again. There were no choices that allowed the city to shrink, stay the same size, or grow into a major metropolis.

In this article, we have examined only two of the 14 questions. Most others need re-evaluation as well. Now that the process is well underway, what should be done? The Strategic Planning Team should invest in a better survey. There still is time to conduct a more scientific survey. The questions should “divide between the bone and the marrow,” if you will. Respondents should be asked to prioritize scarce limited tax dollars from highest to lowest priority. Even in the computer game SimCity, players could only fund one service at the expense of other services. Furthermore, the data collected needs to be correlated to the demographics. How many business owners are interested in growing the size of the city? (Hint: more people = more customers = more profit.) How many unemployed citizens are interested in increased job opportunities? Incredibly, the survey did not capture any demographic data whatsoever. The demographics are a large part of understanding more fully the context of the answers given.

But, whatever the case, 99 percent of Washougal respondents agree, the City Council should allow the population to swell to some number between 20,000 and 40,000 but absolutely avoid letting the population stagnate at 35,000. Until that tortured logic makes sense, the Council should request a more scientific survey.

Michael Delavar is a member of the Washougal City Council. He can be reached at 771-4859 or