The results of Palm Coast’s latest annual survey of residents were of two moods. Responses to the narrower multiple-choice questions were unsurprising: residents generally like their city, consider it relatively safe, well-kept, pleasing to the eye, park-rich and fairly good for shopping, They could use more job opportunities and a little better cell service.
But as is generally the case, residents’ narrative responses were broader and more instructive than the survey’s somewhat narrow prompts. When given a chance to express themselves in words, freed from the parameters of the multiple-choice questions, respondents cast a more nuanced, less chirpy perspective. That’s where the call for more sidewalks, more street-lights and more attention to public transportation emerges.
The responses included the good and the bad, and of course the nostalgic, such as this sample, reproduced here raw except for the first person singular, which was added (it was missing in the original throughout): “I’ve lived in palm coast my entire life and I’m 25 now needless to say I’ve seen a lot change just feel like palm coast got over built to many duplexes and temporary living facilities it was nice when it was a little town I’d rather see trees when walk out my front door instead of houses completely around me and understand that can’t be changed Palm Coast is like a giant HOA there are too many rules and shouldn’t have to get a permit to paint my house or put up a fence there are countless other reasons but just hate seeing my hometown becoming a city instead of a beautiful town.”
Or: “Just moved here my whole family lives here moved from Los Angeles really miss great restaurants have involved with a few things here and it seems people want to get involve but really don’t do anything about it.”
One business executive’s answer was choppy, possibly due to the difficulties with the survey’s interface, but to paraphrase, the respondent said the city could be a “tremendous” location for corporate offices, but the respondent would move if “the issues in the ‘P Section’ were to continue to spread.” The respondent did not specify what issues she or he was referring to.
For more than a dozen years the city had contracted with a private company to conduct a mail-in survey. The sample size was never large: last year’s paper response was less than 500. This year the city council decided to save the money and broaden the sample size by conducting its own survey by web (or overwhelmingly by web), including emailed solicitations to registered voters who included their email in their records. The method was not scientific. It allowed anyone to participate, whether in Palm Coast or in Peru, and participants could do so repeatedly, which could potentially skew the results. But the city hoped to overcome the lack of a scientific approach with the larger size of the sample. At least in that regard, it succeeded: upwards of 4,000 responses were received.
The survey was not exactly neutral. Its multiple-choice component, which dominated the powerpoint presentation to the city council earlier this week, skewed respondents toward the positive, with three of the four possible responses (poor, fair, good, excellent) starting either at the mid-point of satisfaction or better. More candid surveys would have had direct equivalents for “good” and “excellent” on the negative side—adding “very poor” to “poor” would have created that balance–with “fair” in the middle. Respondents were afforded that more even evaluation on only a few of the questions. But the Palm Coast administration was talking its cue from the National Citizen Survey, the organization that conducted the survey in previous years: its questions are similarly skewed toward the positive, making those surveys closer to marketing tools than objectively critical evaluations. The difference is notable since the council claims to want to use the surveys to guide policy. But to the city’s credit, respondents were free to express themselves this year as they had not been in previous years, though their responses are not powerpoint friendly.
The responses were clearly not evenly representative of the city’s makeup. Only 2 percent of participants were younger than 25, just 10 percent were younger than 35, and almost two-thirds of respondents were 55 or older. Overwhelmingly, those participating were better off than not, with household incomes of $50,000 or more. Just 12 percent of respondents were renters, and based on the where they said they live, the respondents were evenly spread across the city.
Household income explains a few other numbers: 92 percent of respondents had “smart phones,” 98 percent had access to the internet—higher proportions than in the nation as a whole (the Pew Research Center places internet access at 84 percent in 2015). The survey specifically asked respondents whether they had cell phones that could access the internet, and 92 percent said they did. (Pew found that in 2016, some 77 percent of Americans owned smart phones, while 95 percent owned cell phones: A smart phone is also a cell phone. A cell phone is not necessarily a smart phone.)
Almost half of respondents have no land line anymore, making dependence on cell phones far more pronounced than in the past—and dependence on reliable cell phone service just as pronounced. That service is spotty but not terrible by any means: 20 percent of respondents reported “poor” service, 21 percent reported “fair,” and 59 percent reported good or excellent service.
Half the respondents were not working. That may be striking. But it’s in line with the county’s retiree-heavy demographics: according to state employment figures, the county’s labor force of 45,400 makes up just 43 percent of the total population, assuming the population is around 105,000. Another 15 percent of the population is younger than 18 and mostly not employed. That leaves about 42 percent of the adult population—not unemployed, but either no longer employed, retired, or not part of the labor force.
When it comes to street lights, residents are largely satisfied with what they see along “major traffic corridors,” with two-thirds finding the number of lights “just about right,” and 9 percent finding “too many” lights. Only 24 percent thought there weren’t enough lights. But again, the survey in this case skewed responses away from residents’ main concerns: it’s not the lack of lights along major arteries that they general complain about, but in residential neighborhoods. The survey neglects to ask respondents about those. But as The Observer’s Jonathan Simmons detected in a word analysis of responses in the segment of the survey where people could more freely elaborate on their answers, “The phrase ‘street light’ or ‘street lights’ appears 159 times, almost exclusively from people saying the city doesn’t have enough lighting.”
In another survey blind spot, there were no questions about sidewalks or transportation issues—both recurring issues of concern for residents—though respondents brought those up in written responses, often in conjunction with streetlights: “We love Palm Coast but street lights and sidewalks are seriously lacking in most neighborhoods and we should probably have more neighborhood watch groups We are also lacking in public transportation which is a severe deficit for a lot of people.” “Sidewalks and better bus stops for children Street lights please.” In “light of the (recent) deaths due to [inadequate] streetlights and sidewalks in our community feel there is an absolute need to do these projects before a other [projects] in this county There have been too many lives lost as a result of negligent feel on the part of county for the [safety] of our residents PLEASE PLEASE DO SOMETH NG ABOUT [THIS].” “The city needs more sidewalks and street lights along major roads The city was able to put in [sidewalks] along US1 North of Palm Coast Parkway where no one lives Who are they protecting there The city [needs] to have sidewalks and street lights along every street for the safety of its citizens.” And so on repeatedly.
In term of safety, fewer than 40 percent of respondents declared themselves as feeling “very safe” in their neighborhoods, while 40 percent felt “somewhat safe,” almost 11 percent felt somewhat unsafe, and 4 percent felt very unsafe. But fewer than 6 percent rated the sheriff’s office’s service quality as “poor,” and 73 percent rated it good or excellent.
As always, Palm Coast got poorer marks as a place to work, but the number should be seen in the context of the city’s demographics: most people who live in Palm Coast do not work. And when asked to rate the overall private sector economic health of the city, only 9 percent found it to be poor, with the rest almost all in the fair to good range, about where residents’ satisfaction with shopping happens to be: the correlation, appealing more to perception than fact, may not be coincidental.
The survey was conducted through Survey Monkey and tabulated by the city’s marketing staff, generating in all more than 300 pages of raw data, most of it the actual comments of participants. Those pages were posted on the city’s website earlier this week, though inexplicably censored in many parts to black out words city staff found offensive. An uncensored version appears below.