A record 96 percent of respondents in the latest survey of Palm Coast residents consider themselves safe in their neighborhoods, 85 percent find the quality of life good or excellent, and 92 percent intend to remain in Palm Coast over the next five years, also a record. Some 95 percent of residents who have interacted with the fire department found the experience good or excellent.
On the other hand, code enforcement remains the bête noir of a slight majority of residents, the city’s response to stormwater issues like swales doesn’t get much higher marks though 88 percent rank it as a top infrastructure need, and half of respondents are still concerned with speeding and reckless drivers.
Those are some of the numbers culled from the city’s latest biennial “home-grown survey,” as City Manager Matt Morton described it in a workshop with the city council on Tuesday. “These surveys are aimed at informing council, validating the [strategic action plan] and the priorities you’ve established, the satisfaction and an understanding of our community,” Morton said.
The surveys can serve as a more tangible marker of resident opinions than the unpredictable tenor of public comment segments at city council meetings and workshops, when issues of the day or more individually focused concerns–if not those of some candidates running for office, as was the case last fall–can create the impression of greater dissatisfaction with city operations and services than is actually the case.
But outside the survey questions, the survey’s own open-ended comment sections appended to most survey questions yielded 137 pages of single-spaced responses–opinionated, direct, and encompassing far more issues than the survey questions did. Those included many compliments and words of satisfaction, but also pointed to sharp criticism of city conditions or operations, from a sense of overdevelopment to complaints about taxes (though tax rates have been static for years), too-steep water bills, too-dark streets, lack of activities for children and seniors, lack of cultural opportunities, and so on. (Example: “More culture, better choices, better intelligence.” The full set of comments is below.)
Every other year the city contracts with a national firm to conduct the National Citizens Survey, a more scientific approach that paradoxically gets a far lower level of responses. The “home-grown survey” is drafted by the city and approved by the council, with more targeted questions and a much higher rate of return.
Some 7,060 people started this latest survey, 2,970 completed it–still a significant return rate for a survey consisting of no fewer than 40 questions, each with four to five possible answers. There were issues with the technical side of the survey, with residents getting kicked off the survey or finding answers either invalidated or locked out. The city worked to resolve the issues as they arose.
“We did experience some feedback that there were some technical issues that we worked to resolve with residents, and received some of that feedback in communication and response to emails and social media posts throughout the month,” West said.
The technical problems may explain the extent to which the survey respondents skewed to older people–people with more patience or time on their hands, thus significantly under-representing younger, working people.
Two-thirds of those completing it were 55 and older, only a fifth have children 17 or younger–rates similar to the 2018 survey–and 90 percent were homeowners (the Census Bureau’s latest numbers show a 74.3 percent owner-occupied housing rate for the city). All but 560 had at least some college education or more. And all but a dozen of the 560 had completed high school or a GED.
“The National Citizen Survey is a very static instrument,” City Administration Coordinator Denise Bevan said in comparison, with 1,700 households targeted, of which just 30 percent complete the survey, or some 400 respondents.
“The National Citizen Survey always frustrated me because it was such a small pool of residents,” Mayor Milissa Holland said, “and I don’t know if it necessarily tracked the general population using these statistics that we received. It was very prescribed, and so this gives us the ability to customize it and make sure we’re really responding to what we want to hear from our residents.”
The city acknowledges that its own survey is not scientific but rather a “snapshot” view of local perspectives, with numerous caveats and a pretty large margin of error. “Anything 7 percent or greater is basically significant, knowing that we are working with a non-scientific survey,” Bevan said.
In other words with 35.24 percent of respondents finding Palm Coast a good place to work in the last survey, while still woefully low, is a statistically valid improvement over the 2018 figure of 28 percent, or 26 percent in 2017. Oddly, respondents returned no similar satisfaction with Palm Coast as having employment opportunities: only 16 percent rated that category good or excellent, down from 20 percent in 2018 in a possible reflection of covid’s effects, but it was 15 percent in the 2017 survey, too. At least it’s up from 8 percent in 2015, when the city was still struggling out of the Great Recession.
In an open-ended question about priorities, a plurality of respondents (21 percent) cited providing job opportunities first, with protection of natural resources second (25 percent) and protecting Palm Coast’s small-town character third (13 percent). Protecting the water supply, improving traffic capacity or providing higher education opportunities each ranked at or below 7 percent in priorities.
The low response regarding higher education appears to contrast with the city’s focus on Town Center as ground zero for its new partnerships with the University of North Florida and the University of Jacksonville, both of which are opening local operations. But that low number may again be a reflection of the overwhelmingly older people who responded, and who tend to be more interested in their own recreation and shopping opportunities than in the education of the people who may be taking care of them soon.
The overall economic health of Palm Coast is now rated good or excellent by 60 percent of respondents, up from 46 percent in 2015 and 50 percent last year. That may appear to be a surprise, but given the overwhelmingly older demographic of respondents, it’s also a reflection of the relative insulation of retirees from the job market’s vagaries of the last year: had the survey question included a question about satisfaction with such things as DoorDash, the home-delivery services for restaurants and grocery store, the response might have topped 90 percent. That assumption is validated by the survey’s findings: 1,800 respondents out of 3,000 saw no change in their work (or retirement) status, and just 134 reported losing employment and 57 were furloughed.
Other categories get better “good” or “excellent” ratings: Business and services get a 57 percent satisfaction, up from 50 in 2017, shopping opportunities get 50 percent, down from 55 percent last year and the same as 2017, but that number’s change is within the margin of error. Palm Coast as a place to visit? That’s at 71 percent, up from 67 in 2019 and 63 in 2017 (lower numbers likely influenced by hurricanes those years), but down from 2015, a hurricane-free year, when it was at 74.
Palm Coast residents have always given it high marks for appearances, with that satisfaction number hovering near 90 percent, as it did again this year, with quality of life close behind at 85 percent, a statistically significant improvement over the 77 percent of 2015 and the 75 percent of 2017.
A plurality of respondents (34.5 percent) are interested in preserving the city’s natural environment–significantly more so than those interested in workforce development (25 percent). Just 5 percent are interested in “diverse housing options,” a reflection of the city’s darker underbelly: as illustrated by numerous public hearings about proposed apartment complexes and comments included in the survey, homeowners in Palm Coast remain prejudiced against affordable housing, falsely but frequently associating the low-income housing with crime and just as frequently tinging the association with racist assumptions.
“GET RID of Workforce ASAP,” one of the more unhinged respondents wrote in a comment appended to the survey and rich in falsehoods. “It’s part of Great Reset by World Economic Forum and is seeking to invade the governments all over the states to collect information and shall be one of the tools to subjugate us all by 2030.” Another comment along those lines, with a reference to Town Center near Epic Theaters, read: “No more high density housing! This place is building up enough. The area by epic is ruined.” The commenter did not explain what was meant by “ruined,” Town center being more vibrant today than it was two years ago, and no less peaceful.
“Not appreciating the low income housing going up in Palm Coast. I believe that will bring down the actual character of the community. Would love to see this stay a quiet retirement area as it was intended,” yet another commenter wrote. “Too many new people will make this a crowded area, more crime, and less desirable. Not liking what Town Center is turning into.” In fact, crime has steadily and steeply declined over the past four years.
In contrast, a plurality of respondents listed the development of the city’s Innovation District, which overlaps with Town Center, as their priority, with the development of other industrial or commercial sites getting less interest.
The survey reveals a number of curiosities when analyzed more closely, among them the revelation that, for all its recent and quite expensive renovations, Holland Park is bested by Waterfront Park as the single-most likely destination of respondents, with Holland Park in second place–though again, that may be a reflection of the survey respondents’ age and not necessarily of reality: Waterfront park, accessible only by car, is a favorite among older people, its amenities limited to sights and sounds and serenity. Holland Park, in the thick of the F Section, teems with young families, children and teens, its enormous playgrounds, basketball courts and tennis courts seldom empty of players, its dog park a pseudo-community center and its pavilions their own social beehives.
The survey also found that despite an intense focus on Palm Coast Connect, the city’s web interface with residents, it still ranked next-to-last, just above snail mail, as residents’ preferred means of communications with the city. Phone calls and emails were first and second. “Palm Coast Connect is a poor way to communicate with the city inhabitants, the water bill is sufficient enough‐ by mail or email,” one commenter wrote, as did another: “Get rid of palm coast connect, its awful,” and : “I ranked the Palm Coast Connection low on communication preference because I haven’t the faintest idea of how to interact with it.” There were a few supportive responses, but for every one of those– “Continue to promote Palm Coast Connect. It’s a very efficient way to get answers or report a concern”–there were five negative ones.
The survey also seems to have inexplicably missed asking any direct questions about one of the major municipal services the city provides: policing, through its contract with the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office.
The city is surveying residents separately about its garbage and recycling services. But the survey included a couple of questions about that: most residents are still wanting recycling, and 61 percent consider it very important or essential.
The survey drew criticism from Council member Ed Danko, who said he got some 20 calls from residents who complained about technical issues, and others who “felt that this was a leading type survey,” he said, “a guided survey is what that’s known as in the business, where they had a choice of six items, and if they picked one, the rest would populate in order, and if they didn’t go back and change it, but there was no place in a lot of these questions to put ‘other,’ check other, or not interested, or whatever. There was no option other than the questions and the answers we provided on most of these things. I know we did have a comment section at the bottom.” Danko suggested providing a none-of-the-above option in the future.
The copious set of comments contributed by survey respondents, however, suggests that residents’ input on their own terms was not inhibited by the questions.
“That’s why we do this, right?” Holland said, “it’s also to understand the response from the public on how we’re doing, areas of focus that we need to do a better job at.” In coming weeks Bevan will be meeting one-on-one with each of the council members to gauge their priorities, ahead of the council’s next goal-setting session, with the survey serving as one of the points of reference.