Should Charlottesville Survey Seek Citizen Input?

By. Neil Williamson, President

Once again the Charlottesville City Council has issued their annual tax survey asking residents how they should prioritize their spending decisions for the upcoming budget cycle. 

Annually, this survey gives the Free Enterprise Forum post Thanksgiving heartburn.  As we suggested regarding the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission (TJPDC) survey, any such instrument is only as valuable as the respective cohort who responds.  Unlike the TJPDC survey, it does go out to all city residents (via utility billing).  It is understood that all who receive the instrument will not fill it out and those who do fill it out could also fill it out online and fax in an additional response.

To be clear, the Free Enterprise Forum firmly endorses the city’s vision for citizen involvement:

our decisions are informed at every stage by effective communication and active citizen involvement. Citizens feel listened to and are easily able to find an appropriate forum to respectfully express their concerns.

But, we also believe such surveys provide an “easy way out” for councilors who are simply looking to determine which way the wind is blowing.  Just as elections should be about choices of different perspectives (which Charlottesville has lacked for some time), budgets should also be about informed choices and decisions.

Understanding that these decisions have consequences, we are appreciative of the concept behind the last three survey questions:

13. You support City services through a portion of real estate, personal property, sales and other taxes and user fees. Considering all of our City services on the one hand, and taxes on the other, which of the following statements is closest to your view?

  • I believe we should decrease taxes and services (if chosen, go to Q14)
  • I want to keep taxes and services where they are
  • I believe we should increase taxes and services (if chosen, go to Q15)

14. If you feel services should be decreased, which services should be decreased?

15. If you feel services should be increased, which services should be increased?

The Free Enterprise Forum is appreciative of being asked to voice our opinion but this is not a true democracy.  As a republic, we elect folks to make these decisions, if we do not like the decisions they make, we have the opportunity to remove them. 

So should Charlottesville citizens fill out the survey?  The short answer is Yes. 

The longer answer is the same as we gave for the TJPDC survey:

So now the Free Enterprise Forum finds itself between a philosophical rock and a hard place; do we encourage participation in a survey that has flawed methodology or sit on the sidelines Monday morning quarterbacking?

After significant thought time, we are encouraging everyone to fill out the survey.

After City staff tabulates the responses, we challenge the City Council to accept the inherently flawed survey data as one of the many pieces of information to be used to evaluate the FY2014 budget.

That’s the reason City  Council was elected, to make decisions, not conduct surveys.

Respectfully Submitted

Neil Williamson, President

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Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa and  Nelson County.

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