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Most High-Priority Services Get Low Ratings in Poll

By D'Vera Cohn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 24, 1997; Page J01

Washington residents are unhappy with the quality of city services and are most dissatisfied with street repair, public schools, drinking water and recycling programs, according to a survey taken for the financial control board.

The survey measured public opinion of 27 public services and asked people to list them in order of priority. It also asked for evaluations of the city's 911 system, motor vehicle services and tax division from people who used them in the last year.

"Residents are most disappointed with those services which they consider the most important: fighting crime, improving schools, preventing gangs and drugs, providing safe drinking water and creating job opportunities in the city," according to Belden & Russonello, the survey firm. "There is also broad concern that services for the city's poor and homeless are not adequate to meet the need."

The survey was intended as an initial evaluation of public services to help the control board measure performance. Board officials say they intend to sample public opinion in the future to see whether residents' feelings have changed -- a measure of how well the board is doing in improving services.

The survey cost $36,000, paid for through corporate contributions, not taxpayer funds, control board officials said. The telephone survey of 1,201 randomly selected city residents was taken from March 21 to April 14.

The survey results agree with a Washington Post poll that was published in May and taken several weeks after the control board's poll. The Post poll also gave low ratings to city services. The control board poll asked residents about their ratings in more detail.

Nearly half of city residents -- 48 percent -- rate most city services as poor or very poor. Thirty-five percent rate them as fair, and only 15 percent call them good or excellent.

Responding to the survey last week, Mayor Marion Barry (D) attributed the poor ratings to the city's broad range of responsibilities, many of which are the duty of state government in other places.

City residents rate crime as the District's most important problem, but "residents are considerably more likely to hold a poor or very poor impression than a good or excellent view of the District's efforts to prevent the spread of drugs, to counter gang activities with programs for youth, and to fight crime across the city," the polling firm said.

Other city services that received high priority but low performance ratings include public schools, job training and placement for the unemployed, efforts to attract new business to the city and safe drinking water.

The city does provide some highly rated services, including Metrorail and bus transportation, art and cultural programs, libraries, fire protection and parks, the survey found.

The only one that also is rated a top priority is fire protection, the survey firm noted.

Among people who have used three city services in the last year, results were mixed:

Motor vehicle services, used by half of residents surveyed, received 40 percent excellent or good ratings, 28 percent fair ratings and 32 percent poor or very poor ratings.

911 services, used by one in four residents surveyed, received 62 percent excellent or good ratings, 14 percent fair ratings and 24 percent poor or very poor ratings.

Tax services, used by two in 10 residents, received 44 percent poor or very poor ratings, 22 percent fair ratings and 34 percent excellent or good ratings. Residents were "generally unsatisfied with the service they received," the polling firm said.

Opinions on some issues varied among the city's wards, between whites and blacks and between longtime and newer city residents.

Black residents and single mothers placed higher priority than white residents and other groups on many of the 27 services the survey asked about.

The polling firm said the lowest marks for services came from Ward 2 and 3 residents, white residents, homeowners and residents with the highest levels of education and income.

Black residents were more likely than whites to say crime is the biggest city problem; whites were more likely than blacks to cite the city government.

People who have lived in the city more than 11 years placed a higher priority than newer residents on services such as public libraries, parks, motor vehicle services, tax processing and snow removal.

Residents who have lived in the city for six years or less placed more importance on public schools and police protection citywide.

Staff writer David A. Vise contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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