A growing number of St. Albertans are in favour of reducing service levels to avoid a tax increase, a newly released community satisfaction survey suggests.
The biennial survey, conducted this year by consultant Pivotal Research, collected input from 1,129 residents: 682 who filled out a mail-to-web survey, and 447 who responded to an open-link survey advertised on the city’s website. Respondents answered questions about their quality of life, what aspects of St. Albert contribute to their experience, and where city council and administration should focus this new term.
While past community satisfaction surveys have shown a majority of St. Albert residents would be willing to take on an inflationary tax increase to maintain service levels (51 per cent in 2019, and 57 per cent in 2017), 51 per cent of survey respondents in 2021 said they would prefer a reduction in service levels to avoid a tax increase altogether.
Twenty-nine per cent of those surveyed in 2021 would still support a tax increase to maintain service levels, with 11 per cent saying they would like to see significant reductions in service levels to bring taxes down.
When the results of the survey were presented to a council committee, Mayor Cathy Heron said the shift came as a surprise to her.
“In the past, we’ve always worked under the assumption that service reductions are not on the table in St. Albert,” Heron said. “This is completely different.”
Quality of life stays high
As in the past, respondents said they are satisfied with their quality of life in St. Albert, with 96 per cent rating their quality of life as good or very good, compared to 98 per cent who responded similarly in 2019.
Regionally, St. Albert ranks at the very top for quality of life, coming in neck-and-neck with Morinville (96 per cent) and Leduc (95 per cent) with Strathcona County not far behind at 91 per cent.
According to the survey, top contributors to a high quality of life included St. Albert’s parks, trails, and natural areas, as well as recreation, including access to fitness facilities and family programming.
Top factors negatively impacting quality of life included traffic and public transit, roadway repair and maintenance, planning and land development, business attraction and local business services, and bylaw enforcement.
Cindy de Bruijn, the city's senior manager of community relations, said the city took its service level inventory and categorized it into 18 broader themes to find specific areas for the city to improve.
“Historically, we’ve received a lot of feedback that people really liked St. Albert because of the quality of schooling, or they really liked it because of the proximity to Sturgeon Community Hospital,” de Bruijn said. “Really great information, but not necessarily something that we could action as an administration on behalf of council."
Municipal leadership not a part of survey
Notably, this year’s satisfaction survey did not include a category for “municipal leadership” as it had in the past. This section of the survey would typically include questions that gauge participants' satisfaction with council itself.
In the 2019 and 2017 surveys, participants had to rate how much they agreed with statements about council effectively planning for the future of the community, and acting in the community’s best interests.
Participants also had to rank the most important issues facing St. Albert city council, for example, participants could choose poor decision making and overspending.
When asked why this most recent survey did not include these metrics, de Bruijn said in a statement that the survey was conducted between Nov. 4 and Dec. 12 of 2021.
“As the new council had only been elected Oct. 18, it would not have been possible to collect meaningful feedback on their performance,” de Bruijn said.
Satisfaction varies by neighbourhood
Citizens in St. Albert are 62 per cent satisfied or very satisfied with city services, with a wide variance in satisfaction levels by neighbourhood. While 91 per cent of respondents in Inglewood and 90 per cent of residents in St. Albert’s downtown reported satisfaction, only 39 per cent of those in Oakmont had a positive view of services.
Coun. Mike Killick noted high-visibility planning issues in the Oakmont development could have contributed to the low numbers, citing the contentious Riverbank Landing development which council approved in June 2021.
In addition to focusing on factors such as road repair and bylaw improvement, respondents pinpointed public communication and customer care as an area for the city to improve its services.
“Prioritizing transparency and communication and increasing information access would also help shore up citizen satisfaction scores,” Doha Melhem, from Pivotal Research, told council.
Coun. Sheena Hughes said she appreciated the level of detail in the survey, noting it will be helpful to have on hand as council enters its strategic planning session in March.
“We’ll see whether or not council chooses to listen to it,” Hughes said. “But definitely, the taxes are an issue to a point where people are wanting to take service level cuts to ensure they don’t climb rapidly.”