WHITMAN — Residents support their town services, but are reluctant to look toward an operational override, preferring a targeted approach to support specific departments or projects.
Bridgewater State University Political Science Professor Dr. Melinda Tarsi presented the results of the survey to a small gathering in the Town Hall Auditorium Wednesday, March 20.
“Several months ago, we met in this room to talk about doing a community survey,” said Town Administrator Frank Lynam, noting that Tarsi has offered her services as well as the university’s for the project.
Tarsi thanked those who showed up on a “pretty nice spring evening to look at survey results” and thanked those in town’s participation, questions and overall interest in the project.
“I think we saw from the level of interest … from the community and the kinds of questions they were asking [indicated they wanted to] make sure everything was done correctly and making sure we got their survey, to me and my students indicates how much people care about the community,” she said.
The bimodal survey — conducted both on paper and online — was done between November and the beginning of February. The university, which provided all paper, postage and other costs through the university, sent a single copy of a paper survey to each household, with a QR code that could access additional copies online. Additional paper copies were also provided on request.
Despite the short response window and the size of the response sample — 1,062 of which 640 were online and 422 on paper — Tarsi said it still gave adequate information for discussion about priorities and budget issues.
“This is part of an approach to plan ahead,” Lynam said. “It’s not going to answer all the questions that we need [answered] for this years’ budget, but it gives us an idea of what the community as a whole is looking at.”
Tarsi said it was equally rewarding for her students, many of whom are now interested in obtaining internships in local government.
The full report is available on the town website Whitman-ma.gov.
The most important issues facing the town, according to the survey, were: schools and education — 36 percent; property tax rates — 36 percent; opioid and other substance abuse — 23 percent; business/economic development — 24 percent; roads/transportation and upkeep — 31 percent. There were several other issues drawing lower percentages and some write-in responses that are viewable online.
People were allowed to select more than one issue on the survey.
Where raising revenue is concerned, almost half preferred increases to licenses and fees; 8 percent suggested raising excise taxes; 17 percent would increase property tax rates; and 28 percent had other views.
“Increasing licenses and fees tends to be a more popular option generally, in whatever case we’re talking about, so this follows what we might tend to see in any municipality when they’re being presented with options on how to increase revenues,” Tarsi said of research on the issue.
To control costs; 42 percent said all departments should be asked to cut their budgets by a certain proportion; 15 percent wanted to see town employees’ salaries level with no raises; 14 percent said to reduce Town Hall hours; and 13 percent said reduce town services. Only 1 percent of residents suggested layoffs.
Overrides were defined in the survey and residents were asked if they favored that option. Forty-two percent said they would back an override, but only for a particular reason; 38 percent said no to an override for any reason and close to 20 percent support an operational override for any part of the budget.
“What this indicates for us as survey researchers, is that there is some acceptance of the idea of an override, but, understandably, voters, residents, taxpayers want to know why,” Tarsi said.
Departments preferred to benefit from any override were: schools, police, fire and public works. Veterans services were also quite high.
Of school services, smaller class sizes, instructional materials for teachers and full-day kindergarten were the top priorities. For the DPW, road repair, snow removal and maintaining town buildings were top concerns.
People responding to the survey reported that 72 percent did not attend the 2018 Town Meeting, while 28 percent said they did attend.
Of those respondents, 47 percent owned a home in Whitman; 19 percent have had children in the schools in the past; 11 percent currently have children in the schools; 10 percent volunteer in town; 5 percent are renters; 2 percent own a business in town; another 2 percent works for a Whitman business; and 1 percent works for the town.
The residents responded that 27 percent have lived in Whitman between 31 and 50 years; 21 percent between 11 and 20 years; 15 percent from 21 to 30 years with another 15 percent fewer than five years; 11 percent have lived in Whitman more than 50 years and 10 percent from five to 10 years.
As Selectmen had previously reported about the results most people scored Whitman well on quality of life and as a good place to live and raise a family, but poor as a destination for entertainment.
Residents also indicated they liked the level of town services they receive, but recognize that cuts may have to be made in a budget crisis, according to Tarsi.