To better understand the perspectives, neighborhoods, and service use patterns of the community, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center have been conducting community surveys in the Borough for the last two years. This partnership has assembled some of the first data available on Borough residents’ attitudes toward their community and Borough government. By revisiting communities we can construct a robust picture of each community’s characteristics and their effects on public governance, safety, and quality of life. Such a longitudinal approach helps to identify and measure community change in a way that allows us to evaluate the efficacy of programs or the need for new solutions. The data from this survey are being used by Borough government to prioritize projects, improve services, and better plan for community growth. The Justice Center has been using the data to advance community research and to begin mapping patterns in the Borough’s community council areas and also to grasp difference between the Mat-Su and Anchorage, where the Center has conducted similar surveys.
The 2007 questionnaire was distributed to 2,478 residents of the Mat-Su Borough. The results presented here draw on the 1,388 questionnaires returned during the data collection period, a response rate of approximately 56 percent. Table 1 presents the demographics for respondents. Items in the questionnaire asked respondents to evaluate the quality of Borough services, to provide opinions about Borough decision-making, and to consider their experience of community within their neighborhoods.
Though Anchorage and the Mat-Su Borough are right next to one another, they are very different. Anchorage has a population more than three-and-a-half times the size of the Mat-Su’s 77,174 people, but the geographical spread of the Mat-Su—24,502 square miles—dwarfs Anchorage, which covers 1,956 square miles. More than half of the Borough’s residents live in the incorporated cities of Wasilla, Palmer, and Houston, leaving much of the land in the Borough sparsely inhabited or undeveloped. In the context of this study, residents of these three incorporated cities are labeled as living in urban environs while those outside of incorporated cities are considered rural.
With 44 percent of the workforce employed outside of the Borough, Mat-Su residents do considerably more commuting than their Anchorage counterparts. The Alaska Department of Labor estimates that at least 33 percent of Mat-Su residents commute to Anchorage for work, while less than one percent of Anchorage residents commute to the Mat-Su. Higher wages in Anchorage complement the lower cost of living in the Mat-Su Borough, providing Mat-Su commuters the best of both worlds, at the cost of a forty or fifty-mile drive for many workers. Still other Mat-Su residents commute even farther to work in construction, mining, oil, and fishing industries.
Within the Borough, survey respondents’ perspectives and opinions reflected more similarities than differences. Community council areas around the Mat-Su generally exhibited very similar perspectives on Borough services, neighborhoods, and reactions to taxation. Some differences, however, did emerge by residents’ urban/rural location, household income, and levels of formal education. Across the board, those with higher levels of income and education were more likely to express an opinion—whether negative or positive—about items in the questionnaire, while those with lower levels of each more often selected the no opinion option. This relationship, like most reported here, was linear, with each progressive level of income or education being more likely than the previous level to voice an opinion.
In general, Mat-Su residents rated the services the Borough provides, such as emergency services, K-12 education, and recreational facilities, as good, although zoning enforcement services and dissemination of news and information by the Borough government were rated below average. People with higher educational attainment and higher incomes were much less likely to have any opinion to report about fire and ambulance services, but when they did voice an opinion, those with higher education expressed lower satisfaction with those services. Residents with higher incomes and education levels were more satisfied with plowing services received during the snowy winter months. Those with more education reported more dissatisfaction with both the zoning enforcement and the recycling services available than did other groups.
More than 80 percent of respondents stated they use the Borough’s libraries and recreational areas, with the Wasilla swimming pool and the Mat-Su’s nature trails the most popular recreational areas. Libraries in Wasilla, Palmer, and Big Lake showed the highest use. High school graduates were the least likely to use either the libraries or the recreational facilities, while middle-income residents were more likely to use recreational areas than high or low-income residents. MASCOT, the Borough’s bus service, was used by only seven percent of Borough respondents; those who did use it were more likely to have lower incomes and to live in urban areas where bus service is more extensive.
In addition to asking residents about their experiences with government services, the Mat-Su Borough government sought feedback about the interactions residents have with Borough staff, perspectives on appropriate use of tax dollars, and preferences for the means of taxation in the future. Nearly half of all respondents stated that they were satisfied with their opportunities to provide input on Borough decisions, but urban residents were more positive about these opportunities than were rural residents, who may find it difficult to attend council meetings in the urban core. Most respondents had no opinion about the ease of using the Borough’s official website or the utility of its content. Most agreed that when they phoned the Borough, they received the information they needed in a timely manner from polite, professional staff. The higher the educational level, the more satisfied residents were with the information on the website and the timely, thorough manner in which staff responded to their inquiries.
While those with higher educational attainment were more satisfied, more than half of the respondents did not believe that they were getting their money’s worth for their tax dollars. Nearly 60 percent of respondents believed that current road maintenance is not as good as it should be, given the taxes they pay, but those with higher incomes, greater education, and an urban location evaluated road maintenance more positively, concluding that the roads are a good return on their tax dollars. Most taxation possibilities received little support from Mat-Su residents, but those with more education were more likely to support virtually every suggested tax than were other residents. Strongest reactions came against imposition of a local gasoline tax (88% opposed) and increased property tax (87%).
Most respondents stated that the Borough government needs to improve growth management, with some noting that growth has been too rapid and unplanned and others complaining that it has been too slow and hampered by government intervention. Whether they envision a more urban modern borough or a more traditional rural one, most respondents reported being generally happy with their neighborhoods and their feeling of community with neighbors. The single most commonly encountered undirected comment was that the Mat-Su as a whole is a great place to live. Respondents rated their neighborhoods highly, stating that their neighbors were trustworthy, get along, and were willing to help one another, but only 44 percent were willing to call their neighborhood close-knit. Rural residents rated their neighborhoods more positively than urban residents, with more saying that they would miss their neighborhood if they were forced to move. Rural residents also visited more often with neighbors, knew more of their neighbors, and had more friends and relatives in their neighborhoods than urban residents, although most residents reported substantial neighborhood interactions.
The majority of respondents viewed their neighbors as willing to intervene in cases of juvenile delinquency (although truancy seemed less likely to produce that intervention than other forms of delinquency). If their local fire station were threatened, a majority believed neighbors would intervene. Rural and higher income residents stated that their neighbors would be particularly likely to intervene if a fight broke out in front of their homes. Higher income respondents were also significantly more likely to believe their neighbors would rally to oppose closure of a local fire station.
Manifestations of physical disorder—conditions of buildings, cars, lots, etc.—seemed to be fairly common in respondents’ neighborhoods, with poor lighting and empty lots the most frequently reported. Manifestations of social neighborhood disorder, however—such as public drinking/drug use, prostitution, graffiti, etc.—were quite uncommon, reported by between only one percent and 17 percent of respondents.
In general, respondents reported very low crime in their neighborhoods, but lower-income residents experienced more crime than higher-income residents. Fewer than seven percent of respondents reported being victimized in their neighborhoods. Across the board, respondents reported little or no fear of crime in their neighborhoods, and fear of crime rarely—if ever—prevented their normal activities in the neighborhood. Seventy-two percent of respondents reported taking some kind of precaution against crime in their home.
Continued regular surveys of the area will provide a usable longitudinal picture of the Mat-Su, allowing for trend analysis in Alaska’s fastest growing borough. Borough governments can use this measurement tool to gauge public sentiment and desires for future improvements.
Shel Llee Evans is a research associate with the Justice Center. Results from the survey discussed in this article, “The Matanuska-Susitna Borough Community Survey, 2007,” are available on the Justice Center website as part of the Community Indicators Project at http://alaskaindicators.org/.