“How can Southboro improve?”: Town Survey

Earlier this week, I shared news that the Town is promoting two surveys to Southborough residents.

At that time, I focused on the ARPA Committee’s call for input. Today, I’m spotlighting the 2nd Annual Town Survey.

The Town Survey looks to cover all Town departments and most services. The promotion asks “How can Southborough improve?”.

Unlike the first quick survey, this one asks residents to carve out some time to give constructive feedback. It’s estimated to take 20-30 minutes. (You can find the link at sboro.org.) Like the ARPA Survey, the window to answer closes on April 4th.

For anyone who gripes about how their tax dollars are spent by the Town, I’d pitch that it’s worth investing the time. The more people who answer and give specific feedback, the more effective and influential it will be for guiding Town official’s decisions.

The survey was put together by the Municipal Technology Committee. (You can read my coverage of last year’s results and their discussion with the Select Board about those and how future surveys should be conducted, here.)

There are a lot of questions asking for participants to rate their satisfaction for broad categories and specific services and governance. A few look for more detailed input on potential projects. And in some survey areas, open remark fields allow residents to describe their thoughts or concerns.

For anyone looking to get a taste of the survey, before they dedicate the time to completing it, below is my overview of the topics. (It’s also for non-resident readers which include those who work in town and former Townies who like to keep tabs on us.)

Participants are asked to rate satisfaction with:

  • Southborough as a place to live, raise children, and work
  • Perceptions of Town services, value for tax dollars and fees, image of the Town, quality of life, safety, education system, and neighborhood appearance
  • Quality of specific Town departments/services
  • Leadership by officials, effectiveness of staff, ethical conduct, and transparency

It then drills down to ask more detailed questions about specific departments and services:

  • Emergency Services and Social Services
  • Public Works
  • The Library
  • Recreation Services
  • Transportation
  • Municipal Technology and Communication

Other sections seek feedback on:

  • Capital Projects
  • Housing, Quality of Life, Schools, & Sustainability
  • Local Businesses.

The survey concludes with questions to help them understand participants’ demographics. It also allows residents who want to learn the survey results to provide their email address.

Discussing results of last year’s survey, Select Board Vice Chair Chelsea Malinowski asked the MTC to coordinate with the Capital Planning Committee for future surveys. Her concern was that residents were asked to prioritize DPW projects without the full scope of other Capital projects.

This year, under “Capital Projects”, the survey looks for residents to weigh in on funding priorities and potential projects for seven categories. Three were related to recreation fields, three to roads and sidewalks, and another for a police body camera program.

The section also looks for input on the big potential building projects the Town has been looking into.

Questions seek to gauge how supportive residents are of renovating or constructing a new Neary School for grades 2-5. In addition to support/not support/no opinion, choices include “Yes, but want to understand more about the financial impact” and “Need to learn more”. (There is also a comment field.)

The same feedback options are given for a project to convert Woodward School into a community center including Town offices. There, opponents can also specify whether they are against the specific location or investing in a community center.

A follow up question asks about building a standalone community center primarily for the Senior Center and Recreation at double or triple the cost of the Woodward project.

Under the final two categories, some feedback that officials are seeking to help guide future actions include:

  • Satisfaction with availability of affordable housing for your family
  • Any changes the Town made due to the pandemic that you would recommend be permanent
  • Whether Southborough should:
    • reduce its greenhouse gas emissions
    • increase the resiliency of its stormwater infrastructure to mitigate flooding and system issues
    • develop a climate action plan to address reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and resilience
  • Prioritizing types of businesses Southborough should seek to attract

As always, commenters are free to share their thoughts here. But if you want officials to actually consider those opinions when making decisions, your best bet is completing the survey.

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John Kendall
4 months ago

Tried the survey. Whenever I enter a free comment, a get a message that says “We Slipped” and need to restart. I gave up. So typical of what our town has become

fatal flaws
4 months ago

This survey, like the one which preceded it as well as the noise bylaw survey all contain the same flaw – the question that asks, “Are you a resident of Southborough?”. The survey, as designed, cannot determine whether or not a respondent is or is not a Southborough resident.

Literally anyone can take the survey!

How does this skew the results? Nobody knows, yet someone or some group is going to use the survey replies to make decisions about our town. What’s wrong with that picture? Plenty!

Another issue with the survey is it completely excludes Southborough residents who either lack a computer or network access. Oh sure, there is a telephone number to call. And how does that person provide their survey input anonymously?

This is essentially a lazy survey. Sure, it’s easier and cheaper to use the SurveyMonkey site though you’re not reaching all of the Southborough residents. And, as noted above, you’re likely getting responses from people who don’t even live in Southborough.

Want a better method? MAIL survey forms to people’s homes.

I noticed the survey seemed to be lacking in choices in several places. Most Agree Strongly through Disagree Strongly forms also allowed for specific input, though there were a few that did not. I noticed those because those were places where I really wanted to provide additional feedback. Nope. Not allowed! We do not want to know what you think.feel about those items.

I was reminded of the very odd question that had appeared in the noise bylaw survey, asking whether I felt Southborough needed a noise bylaw. Now when a committee, whose charge is to develop a noise bylaw, asks whether there should even be a noise bylaw in a survey, something is just plain wrong. Consider the very real possibility that if a person believes there should not be a noise bylaw, they will likely provide replies that skew survey results.

It would seem logical that if someone was opposed to such legislation, they could simply opt not to participate in a survey which apparently was intended to help the committee members to better focus on the content of a noise bylaw by gathering community input.

Most curious of all is the fact that while almost 2/3 of the noise bylaw survey respondents stated noise levels should be measured in order to enforce such a bylaw, the current draft of the proposed noise bylaw contains no language at all for measuring sound levels. It appeared, at one point, that faced with the loss of such language, an attempt was made to curb the use of noisy equipment, limiting it to a few weeks in the Spring and a couple of months in the Fall. That language too is absent from the draft proposal.

Where does that leave any attempt to create a noise bylaw that will be significantly more than useless?

It appears that the version created will prevent a person from shouting, yet it will not address the deafening cacophony of construction and landscaping noises – limiting those noise sources to a mere 60 hours Monday through Friday and an additional 10 hours or so on Saturdays. Homeowners seem to be able to do whatever they want, whenever they want at any hour that is convenient for them – no restrictions at all!

The so-called noise bylaw, unfortunately, looks to confirm the status quo.

4 months ago
Reply to  fatal flaws

While mailing paper-based surveys to each resident (rather than using an online survey) would likely nearly eliminate responses by non-residents, it would be incredibly costly. The simple half-sheet sized direct-mailer to all residents advertising the ARPA and Satisfaction surveys apparently cost the town $2K. Mailing a 20+page survey booklet, with paid-return-postage, and then inputing or scanning the results would likely cost $10K+.

It is certainly true that some citys/towns are investing a lot of money to become “data-driven”. They are hiring data scientists and survey specialists to help them make better choices. Southborough is not yet ready for this yet. The surveys were put together by volunteers on various committees. Likewise, the result analysis will be done via some volunteer data scientist in town working with the Municipal Tech Committee (MTC).

@fatal flaws: Please reach out to the MTC if you have suggestions for improvement of the survey itself. I’m sure they would be open to it.

Anita Reeder
4 months ago

I decided that today was the day to complete the two surveys the town is requesting feedback for. After seeing the proposed uses for the ARPA funds on said survey and wanting to be as informed as possible before completing it, I went to the government site to see exactly what these funds were to be used for. The Final Rule on how and where these funds can be used is 117 pages long!!!! No, not a typo, it is one hundred and seventeen pages long. In just barely skimming the first 10 pages, I could not see a concise list of what is allowed and any restrictions.
Googling a shorter answer produced the following: “What can ARPA funds be spent on?
In particular, funds may be used for payroll and covered benefits expenses for public safety, public health, health care, human services, and similar employees, including first responders, to the extent that the employee’s time that is dedicated to responding to the COVID-19 public health emergency.” and another entry was “Replace lost public sector revenue; Provide premium pay for essential workers; and. Invest in water, sewer, and broadband infrastructure.
I am not quite sure how some of the proposed uses of these funds fit into the above. Nor how impacted the Town of Southborough has been by the pandemic in reference to the above government mandated uses of those funds. I wonder if by “broadband infrastructure” the government means for us to use the funds on the municipal WIFI, cybersecurity or conference rooms? Or if improving town trail systems fits under any of the categories? Or signs marking the Southborough Center Historic District? And on and on…
I suppose my point is that if we use funds for some of these things and the government decides the funds were used inappropriately, the town coffers will then have to cover those costs instead. I believe we should make absolutely sure that we are using these funds as intended and not wandering into any gray areas which would come back on us in the future.

Anita Reeder
4 months ago
Reply to  Beth Melo

Thank you, Beth! I am really confused now….I was talking about the Federal ARPA funding, I didn’t realize we are also getting State ARPA funding…or has the Federal Government set the precedent on how the state funding is being spent? In reading the letter from the consultants, they speak to the money Gov. Baker approved, which would be state funds, not federal. Are they two separate issues? If so, how does one keep them straight?!?!!? ugh Maybe I am missing something?

4 months ago
Reply to  Anita Reeder

“…Public health, health care, human services…”
Wouldn’t that mean the Board of Health and Youth and Family Services? I watched the ARPA Committee’s March 3rd meeting and some of the committee’s members were very much against using the ARPA funds for additional temporary staffing for these departments. I was surprised to see that these requests were not included on the survey.

4 months ago
Reply to  Beth Melo

Y&F requested funds for temporary staffing. The pandemic has caused an uptick in the need for mental health support. The conversation at the ARPA Committee’s meeting on March 3rd, about 30 minutes in, was very unkind toward Y&F.

Save Money
4 months ago

I propose that all the funds be used to lower our property taxes. There seems to be a lower standard of review when we die down money for COC projects or from so-called re loving funds.

Just my personal opinion.

Thank you.

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