The 15th incarnation of the Memphis Poll came out a few days ago, and although it always seems to have something for everyone, it just left us worried.
The percentage of the public satisfied with Memphis’ quality of life has dropped to 66%. That’s down 12% since 2005.
The percentage of citizens satisfied with city services is down to 74%. It was 82% in 2003.
It’s hard to read the results of the yearly polling begun in 1993 by Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton and not feel largely deflated about the state of the public’s opinion about city services. After all, the Memphis Poll is our public sector equivalent of the consumer price index, and it showed that the market is clearly soft.
For critics of the Herenton Administration, the poll is a clear indictment of failed leadership. To supporters, there are enough glimmers of hope to argue – perhaps meekly – that things are getting better.
Although the tone of the report sometimes feels like it’s working hard to say something positive, the poll did show some improvements, notably in the perception of crime and some physical conditions in their neighborhoods.
Concern about violent crime dropped from 37 to 30% in a year, concern about gangs fell from 39 to 29 %, and the perception that crime is increasing in their neighborhoods dropped from 44 to 40% (although it’s worth remembering that is was only 19% five years ago).
Downtown and midtown had the most positive perceptions of their neighborhoods at 96% and 92% respectively. Northeast Memphis and Southcentral Memphis were most positive about service quality – 82% and 80% respectively. The Southside reported the most positive perception of Memphis’ quality of life – 81%.
The top three service priorities of Memphians are no surprise – police protection (86%), fire protection (79%) and public schools (75%); however, the rest of the list is illuminating. Coming in fourth is disasters/disease planning (72%) and the fifth is solid waste collection (68%).
Rounding out the top 10 were communicate with citizen, public libraries, clean public areas, repair streets and environmental quality. These were bunched between 65-68%.
Bringing up the bottom were revitalize neighborhoods (60%), parks and recreation (58%), job training (58%), public learning groups (51%), PILOTs (41%) and build roads (33%). In the last two places with little support were riverfront development (19%) and Liberty Bowl/Pyramid (15%).
Two positive trends are converging in the police department. Along with the reduction in concern about crime is an accompanying increase in citizens’ positive perceptions about police officers’ respectfulness and prevention. Blue Crush in particular is getting good reviews with 72% of the public aware of it and 74% thinking that it’s reduced crime.
Positive perceptions of the fire department continue and remain a fixture in the annual polls. Meanwhile, the parks division got high marks with high-profile offerings like Pink Palace, Botanic Garden and the Zoo, all with 96-97%. Large parks came in at 87%, community centers at 76 %, tennis courts at 75% and neighborhood parks got 73%, continuing a troubling slide in the approval rates for the parks nearest to most Memphians.
In 2001, the positive perception of neighborhood parks peaked at 86% and has slightly rebounded from 69% in 2004. Large parks have been more steady than neighborhood parks, making the point that Memphians are not unaware of the lack of maintenance and investment in their local parks. At the bottom of the list were swimming pools with only 41% positive, down from 70% in 2002.
The yearly rankings for riverfront development have been volatile and this poll was no different – 61% said the Riverfront Development Corporation was doing a good job of delivering services, down 10 points from only a year earlier. Only 19% of the public supports the riverfront improvements, and the ranking of Mud Island Park dropped 10 points to 61%. The RDC’s roller coaster ride declined from 71% to 53% in its early years, but climbing back to 71% in 2007 before it fell again this year.
On balance, Memphians are optimistic about their neighborhoods, but that’s especially true in downtown and midtown. Northwest Memphis and Frayser were the least optimistic. In particular, neighborhoods are concerned about the responsiveness from city government about problems like vacant lots.
Ratings have declined precipitously to this year when it recorded the lowest ratings ever. For example, when the poll began, only 14% were concerned about litter on neighborhood streets, but that concern has now climbed 44%, closely paralleling cutbacks in these services.
Health Department ratings remained relatively stable. MLG&W receives some of the highest praise in the poll for providing quality drinking water and the courtesy of its field workers; however, citizens give it an exceptionally low ranking for the cost of utilities.
When asked how well city government is doing in communicating with them, 59% said it was being done well, down from 70% in 2004.
One of the most intriguing features of the annual poll is the ranking of services in order of citizens’ approval. Heading up the list with 99 % approval are the respectful attitude of the fire department and the operations of the main library. Branch libraries are at 91% and still make the upper echelon of the ranking.
In fact, in the eyes of the public, here’s the ranking of the best divisions – fire (97%); libraries (94%), public works (80%); parks (78%); executive division (77%); police (77%); MLGW (74%); Health (73%); Housing and Community Development (64%) and Community Enhancement (62%).
“The public libraries have been consistently rated among the very highest services provided by the City of Memphis,” the report said. “These ratings place the public libraries among the elite of city services.”
Looking at these rankings, we remain absolutely incredulous that Mayor Herenton reached the opinion that he needed to change things at the libraries because of his concerns about declining services.
If only all his divisions were as problematic.