In the somewhat informal survey conducted by the consulting firm Amec Foster Wheeler for Statesboro's citywide strategic plan, well more than half of respondents said more money should be spent for parks and greenspace.
Meanwhile, almost 50 percent chose "trails/ greenways," and more than 40 percent intersection improvements, as well as police services. About 40 percent of the 569 total responses to the survey also gave sidewalks as an answer to the question, "Where should additional money be spent?"
As is obvious from those overlapping percentages, people could choose more than one answer. But those were the most popular choices. Behind them trailed fire services, chosen by roughly one-fourth of respondents, and streetlights, selected by about 20 percent.
Lee Walton, project manager for Amec Foster Wheeler, showed the response to this question in the form of a bar graph when he presented preliminary strategic plan research findings Aug. 29 at City Hill.
About 30 percent of respondents also selected "Other (please specify)," and filled in different priorities. These included spending more on city employees, curbside recycling, bike lanes and street maintenance.
Willing to pay more
To the separate question, "Would you be willing to pay more for additional/improved services?" 58 to 59 percent of respondents answered they were willing, Walton reported. A footnote indicated that paying more meant an increase in user fees, property tax or another revenue source.
The survey was not restricted to Statesboro residents, but respondents were asked whether they live in the city limits, outside Statesboro in Bulloch County or elsewhere. When only self-identified Statesboro residents' responses were considered the number who said they were willing to pay more rose to 63 percent.
"That's striking," Walton said. "But what's even more striking to me, looking at this simple chart, is that only 12 to 15 percent said, ‘Absolutely no, we would not be willing to pay.'"
The survey was conducted online through a link from the city's website. Paper copies were also distributed during the four public input drop-in sessions in April and May.
Of the people who completed surveys, 55 percent indicated they reside year-round within Statesboro's city limits, 39 percent live in unincorporated Bulloch County, 2 percent, or just 10 individuals, attend Georgia Southern University and 4 percent live elsewhere.
This was a survey where respondents self-selected. Only people who were interested enough to attend one of the input sessions or make the effort to take the survey online are represented.
"This was not a random-sample statistical survey in the sense that the some of those telephone polls that are cited in the news are," Walton told the mayor, council members and others at the preliminary report session. "This is what we call anecdotal data."
But he called 569 completed surveys "a great response" from a population the size of Statesboro's.
More good than great
On a question about the quality of life in Statesboro, 63 percent of respondents said it is "good," but only 15 percent said it is "excellent"; 20 percent said it is "fair" and only 2 percent said "poor."
"Our takeaway from this is that we're at a solid ‘good,' and the question strategically is how do we go from good to great, how do we go from ‘good' to ‘excellent,'" Walton said.
Asked what they are most concerned about in the community, the more respondents, 20 percent, gave answers indicating "crime/drugs" than anything else. The answer categories "blight/overgrown grass and empty businesses," "insufficient diversity/inclusiveness," "no quality grocery store," and "walkability and pedestrian safety" netted 5 percent to 7 percent each. So did the appearance of a disconnect between the city's priorities and those or residents.
Identifying Statesboro's greatest challenge, 11 percent of respondents gave the answer "crime/drugs," but managing the growth rate was the second most popular choice, at 10 percent, and finding a balance between college life and being family friendly was third at 9 percent, Walton reported.
How to fund goals
Besides input from the survey and listening sessions, the consultants have been looking at Statesboro's existing development plans and facts about its financial resources. The preliminary report was given while City Council was preparing to raise the property tax millage rate for the first time in 10 years.
Funding a raise for police officers was the main reason council members cited for the approved 1-mill increase. But 1 mill was also the amount Amec Foster Wheeler stated would return Statesboro's property tax revenue to the 2007 level after years of decline and partial recovery on the one hand and rising costs of city services on the other.
"Running some numbers and speaking in approximations, your revenue from property taxes has effectively decreased from 2007 to today," Walton said.
He also noted that Statesboro's property tax comes mainly from the value of business properties. Only about 30 percent is from residential property.
"Revenue from nonresidential properties has significantly increased in its percent share of property tax revenues, so overall the vast majority of property tax revenues is coming from commercial or otherwise nonresidential properties," Walton said.
The consultants also noted that while most Georgia cities share in the regular Local Option Sales Tax with their counties, Statesboro does not. In fact, Bulloch County is one of seven Georgia counties where all of the regular 1 percent sales tax revenue goes to the local Board of Education and not to the county government or towns. Another three Georgia counties have no regular LOST at all.
The city does get a share of a separate Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, or SPLOST, but this is restricted to use for capital expenditures, such as building projects, paving, pipelines and equipment purchases.
It is not available for the city's general fund expenses, and the city's property tax revenue amounts to only a fraction of general fund spending.
SPLOST & TSPLOST
City officials have been talking to their Bulloch County government counterparts about bringing a referendum in May to institute a new 1 percent Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax. Discussions are also underway for a November 2018 referendum to extend the existing SPLOST five more years for other kinds of projects.
Without SPLOST, the city would have to increase its property tax rate several mills just to do what it does now, Mayor Jan Moore said last week in a follow-up interview.
"Property taxes are very important, but to make a tremendous impact on our general fund you'd have to raise our millage rate very high, and we're simply not prepared to do that, so we have to look at other ways to augment our quality of life, which it's clear that's what our citizens want," Moore said.
City officials expect the consultants to deliver the finished strategic plan in October.