The trust deficit


Published: Sunday, January 31, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 29, 2010 at 4:30 p.m.

In his State of the Union speech the other night, President Barack Obama spoke of a “deficit of trust ... deep and corrosive doubts about how Washington works that have been growing for years.”

It would be nice to think that Washington has pretty much cornered the market on trust deficit spending.

Unfortunately, voter mistrust is one of nature's heavier elements, and it has a way of settling toward the bottom.

Locally, city and county commissioners have to deal with deficit problems of their own; specifically, multimillion-dollar gaps between revenue collections and budget needs.

And if the results of our latest quality of life survey are any indication, taxpayers hereabouts aren't exactly brimming over with confidence in the ability of Gainesville and Alachua County commissioners to spend their money wisely.

Survey takers also think they have little influence on local government decision making.

Oh yeah, and they think their taxes are too high. (Surprise!)

Admittedly, this was no scientifically conducted survey. As was the case with our past quality of life surveys, the response group was self-selecting; Sun readers who cared to participate went online and did so.

Still, more than 1,000 people elected to take the survey. And as a group, they aren't exactly disengaged: Nearly 96 percent said they voted in the last general election, and 97 percent said they intend to vote in the next one.

Over the next week or so we will be publishing highlights from the survey here on the editorial page. And the entire survey will be posted on our Web page for all to examine.

But in looking over the results, it strikes me that there is indeed something of a trust deficit right here in Alachua County.

For instance, on the question of local leadership, 47 percent rated city commission leadership as “poor,” and 44 percent felt that way about the county commission. By contrast, just 20 percent and 18 percent, respectively, rated county and city leadership as “good.”

The school board fared somewhat better; 42 percent rated the quality of school district leadership as fair, and only 24 percent choose “poor.”

Interestingly, comparing this latest survey with ones we conducted in 2002 and 2006 shows a steady decline in leadership ratings on both the city and county level.

In 2002, for instance, just 23 percent and 24 percent, respectively, rated county and city leadership as poor. Those unfavorable ratings have nearly doubled in just eight years.

Perhaps more significantly, when we asked survey takers if they trust their local elected officials to govern wisely, they overwhelmingly selected “not much trust” (39 percent) or “no trust” (29 percent). Only about a third said they had “some trust” (27 percent) or a “great deal” of trust (5 percent) in their local officials.

And 50 percent said they felt they had “little influence” on local government decision making, with another 23 percent saying they had “no influence.”

Getting back to the tax question, almost half (48 percent) identified taxes as one of the three most important issues facing the community. The next two most highly rated issues were adding jobs (45 percent) and traffic congestion (45 percent).

Moreover, most said their property taxes are “very high,” (51 percent) and “somewhat high” (25 percent). And only 30 percent think they get excellent or good value for the taxes they pay.

And keeping taxes at or below current levels was identified as the most important factor in improving the quality of life in Alachua County, coming in ahead of improving roads and traffic, reducing crime and reducing the high school dropout rate.

What all this may mean is a subject for much conjecture, of course. But it's hard to escape the notion that public trust in local government is not very high at this point in time, and that there is an aversion to taxes that eclipses concern over many other issues of the day.

This being an election year, locals may want to tread as softly as members of Congress and the Legislature in deciding how to deal with their fiscal deficits in the face of a discernible “deficit of trust.” As it is, uttering the word “taxes” this year in a commission chambers could be as inflammatory as yelling “fire” in a crowded theater.

Ron Cunningham is editorial page editor of The Sun. He can be reached at voice@gvillesun or at 352-374-5075. Read his blog, Under The Sun, at www.gainesville.com/opinion.

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