Residents’ top priority: Maintain quality services – and low taxes
By Kathleen Brady Shea, Managing Editor, The Times
Ninety-five percent of residents surveyed agreed that Chester County, which boasts valued scenic vistas, provides “a positive place to raise a family” while issues such as public transportation and traffic congestion generated substantially less enthusiasm.
The opinions represented a cross-section of citizens who participated recently in the Chester County Quality of Life Survey, conducted by West Chester University’s Center for Social and Economic Policy, the county commissioners announced.
The poll, part of the formal review of Chester County’s five-year Strategic Plan, provided a comparison to the citizens’ survey undertaken in 2009, which helped form the basis of the commissioners’ Strategic Plan goals. The survey found that 78 percent of residents believed the county is “better” or “about the same” as a place to live when compared to five years ago – when 75 percent offered that opinion.
“It is good to know that people have a positive impression of Chester County, both where they live and with county services,” said Commissioners’ Chairman Ryan Costello. “But we won’t just pat ourselves on the back and say ‘Aren’t we doing a great job?’ We are using the survey results as a barometer of where we stand now, and how we have increased the level of satisfaction over the past five years. The responses will help us to move forward, refine the original goals based on what we have achieved thus far, and dig deeper into what we need to do to improve upon our citizens’ satisfaction over the next five years.”
In 2013, in addition to offering family-friendly surroundings, residents continued to give Chester County high ratings for open space, parks and schools. Despite a suppressed national economy, 70 percent of Chester County residents indicated that the county does an “excellent or good” job in creating an environment for opening a business, and 62 percent find Chester County to be a positive place to find a job (up from 57 percent in 2009).
When asked about the importance of issues facing Chester County, the top three results, stating “most important or one of the most important” were providing quality services while maintaining low taxes (80 percent), maintaining the quality of Chester County water (79 percent) and maintaining high quality emergency services (78 percent). Attracting and retaining businesses (77 percent) moved up as a priority for county residents from 2009, when only 59 percent of residents ranked it as either most important or one of the most important priorities, the survey said.
As in 2009, emergency services and the 911 system remained at the top of the list of valued services available to Chester County residents. More than eight out of 10 survey respondents (81 percent) claimed that emergency services and the 911 system are “very important,” but only 26 percent indicated they would be “very willing” to pay more in taxes for them.
Not surprisingly, most issues did not get strong support when linked to a potential tax increase. Emergency services was rated the highest, followed closely by open space preservation and public-library services.
Performance of county employees was also addressed as part of the survey. In 2009, only 38 percent of residents surveyed had contact with a county employee in the 12 months preceding the survey, a number that increased to 44 percent in 2013 and “excellent or good” ratings of 87 percent for overall performance.
Commissioner Kathi Cozzone said the board was pleased with the fact that more citizens are having positive contact with county employees. “I thank the employees for their continued dedication and am pleased that the survey validates their hard work,” Cozzone said. “You can have the best services and programs available anywhere, but if you don’t have a strong, committed workforce to communicate and deliver them, then the services and programs will not be effective.”
The 2013 survey confirmed that Chester County residents are frequent users of a number of county services, including county parks and county libraries. One of the more dramatic changes between 2009 and 2013 occurred in the change in the percentage of residents who have visited the Chester County website in the past 12 months, moving from less than 50 percent in 2009 to 70 percent in 2013.
“Over the last five years we have made technological advances in county services, with many more programs available electronically and online. This, combined with the re-design of our website, making it much more flexible and adaptable to mobile devices, has contributed to this increase,” said Commissioner Terence Farrell. “As we take advantage of future technology, we will be able to offer even more important county services that can be accessed from home, the office, the car, bus or train.”
And like any typical cross-section, Chester Countians demonstrated some disagreement. For example, three percent of the respondents suggested that public health services “should be reduced or eliminated” while four percent recommended that they “should be enhanced or added.” More than 85 percent highly rated the Health Department’s role in “preventing epidemics or public health hazards.”
The survey was based on a random sample of 1,125 responses, evenly represented from all areas of Chester County, a county news release said. Twelve thousand surveys were mailed to random homes in six sections of the county during the weeks of May 27 and June 3, and 1,125 responses were received by the June 12 deadline.
The 2009 survey found the range of the percentage of respondents from each region varied from a low of 15 percent to a high of 19 percent. In 2013, the percentage of respondents from each region has remained about the same, the survey said.
A summary of the Chester County Quality of Life Survey may be viewed on www.chesco.org.