Most Montgomery County residents say they are satisfied with the quality of life in the county and think that local government is efficient and provides good services, according to a Washington Post poll.
But along with their general satisfaction, most residents are worried about the future. The Post survey shows fears about drugs, which residents rate as the county's biggest problem. They are concerned about the high cost of housing straining their budgets. And congested roads try their patience.
At a time when many county residents are worried about the pace of growth upending their pleasant lifestyle -- two out of three polled call development a serious or very serious problem -- the issue has become the cornerstone of a heated race for county executive.
Two weeks before the Sept. 11 primary election, the poll, which asked 303 self-described registered Democrats whom they preferred for county executive, shows "undecided" leading the field in the Democratic campaign. Thirty-six percent said they had not made up their minds, while incumbent Sidney Kramer was the favorite of 35 percent, and 29 percent preferred his challenger, veteran council member Neal Potter. The margin of sampling error for this portion of the poll is plus or minus six percentage points.
"Kramer has the image of an honest, progressive guy, and I also have that image of Mr. Potter," said Arthur Rosfeld, 59, a marketing manager from Rockville who is among the undecided voters. "My indecision doesn't have to do with thinking that Kramer has not done a good job. My question is, what's the best way to maintain what we've had for years, how are we going to cope with the future?"
Although the county has a tradition of strong civic activism, many residents surveyed showed little interest in this year's election or in the actions of county elected officials.
Their apathy seems to grow out of a general detachment from local government; few county residents expect the election to make much difference in their lives. Only about one in five persons questioned said they were interested in the campaign, and just over a third said they were fairly interested.
In a county that has experienced rapid population growth in the last decade, half of those questioned acknowledged that they didn't know enough about Kramer -- a businessman and former state senator who was elected executive in 1986 -- to say whether they had a favorable or unfavorable view of him. Nearly three out of four were similarly unfamiliar with Potter, who has served on the council for 20 years.
To measure the attitudes of Montgomery residents toward county government, The Washington Post interviewed 809 randomly selected county residents Aug. 7 through Aug. 19. The margin of sampling error, just one potential source of error in public opinion polls, is plus or minus three percentage points for the overall results.
According to the poll, a majority of county residents believe that they have too little say in county politics and that special interests, such as real estate developers and business leaders, have too much political power. However, more than half -- 57 percent -- rated the ethics and integrity of county officials as excellent or good.
While the poll showed that attitudes toward county politicians and politics may range from ignorance to indifference to some suspicion, it also found remarkably high levels of satisfaction with county government and the services it provides.
Elizabeth Murray, of Brookeville, needs only to look at her four children to review the benefits of life in Montgomery County. Her oldest daughter, an honors student, spent hours in the well-stocked international section at the Rockville branch library. Her son, an eighth-grader, learned to become a champion diver at the county's neighborhood pools. And a favorite family outing has always been a trip to the nature center at Wheaton Regional Park.
"We constantly use the parks and trails and nature centers," said Murray, 40, who moved to Montgomery with her family from the Boston area four years ago. "They are beautiful, clean, well-kept. You can really get away from it all . . . . But if the traffic is bad, there will be all these wonderful places to go to in Montgomery County, and people are just not going to avail themselves of them."
Most residents surveyed said that the fire, police and ambulance services, the parks and recreation department, garbage pickup, street repairs and most of all, the schools, are good to excellent. Their responses differ dramatically with the results of a recent survey of District voters' attitudes toward local government.
In the District, complaints abound about potholes that have become permanent craters, once-free summer programs that now carry $25 fees, and long lines for service at the Department of Motor Vehicles and other agencies. Two-thirds of those surveyed in the District poll said they believe that the D.C. government is corrupt.
Fewer than half of those surveyed in the District poll said the D.C. government is efficient, while more than two of three in Montgomery said their local government is efficient.
But Montgomery residents, for all their contentment, are satisfied to a point. Again and again, traffic and development are twin complaints.
"I think it's a good government," said Ben Kipnis, 89, a Bethesda resident who founded a personnel agency, "but people are afraid of rising property taxes. Plus, I've got to say that roads have not kept up with the construction, especially when you get up there in Gaithersburg and Germantown.
"In Bethesda," he said, "if you want to park in a parking space, you have to buy a parked car."
At the same time they decry development and its effects, most residents also complain that it's difficult to find affordable housing in the county. The survey showed that 77 percent of those questioned said housing costs were a serious or very serious problem, with younger adults -- the group least likely to own a home but the most likely to be shopping for one -- most concerned about the dwindling number of houses in their price range.
A single mother of two, Lillian Harper, of Takoma Park, said she was happy to move from the chaos and crime of her lifelong home in Southeast Washington. Still, she said, she often hears drug dealers beeping each other outside the store near her apartment, and she despairs of ever being able to afford a home.
"It's my dream to own a house," said Harper, 26, "but it looks like it won't be in Montgomery County," where the median price of a family home topped $219,000 in May.
Joyce Scarborough, 35, a teacher from Silver Spring, is buying a condominium in the county, but she's not satisfied with the choice.
"If I were somewhere else in the country, I could take that same money and have a real house," she said. "I'm not opposed to paying for living in this area, because I love to live here. But the housing situation is far outreaching some of the moderate income people in the county. And when I see the big houses my sisters have down in North Carolina, it makes me sick."
County residents also aren't immune from the social problems more frequently associated with their more urban neighbors in the District.
According to the poll, 85 percent of those questioned said drugs are a serious or very serious problem in the county, a view shared by virtually all county residents regardless of age, race, income or sex.
"The drug issue really worries me," said Ernestine Coleman, 58, a Gaithersburg teacher who has lived in Montgomery for 20 years. "It's out there, and we don't know when or where someone will try to entice a child. In Montgomery County, it isn't like we have pockets of drugs and crime, like the big cities, pockets of people standing on corners. It's not as obvious. That's why we have to be more alert."
Seventy-three percent of those surveyed rated the county schools, long a major contributor to Montgomery's progressive reputation, as good or excellent. In that category, there seem to be few fears for now about deterioration -- about 70 percent said they expect the schools to get better or remain the same in the next five years.
One area where residents said government needs to do more is on recycling, which currently is required only in some sections of the county. Two out of three persons polled said the county does not do enough recycling. An even higher percentage -- eight out of 10 interviewed -- said recycling should be mandatory countywide.