Fort Smith Board reviews citizen survey results

story by Aric Mitchell

Fort Smith Directors reviewed findings from the National Citizens Survey (NCS) Tuesday (Oct. 30) that the city falls short in public perception for three key areas: police services, city appearance and public information.

The survey, which was conducted by National Research Center (NRC), Inc., and the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) in August, solicited responses by mail from approximately 1,200 Fort Smith households, receiving 324 responses (about 29%) in return.

From the 324 number, 15% of citizens surveyed indicated that they were victimized by at least one crime in the past year, but less than one-third of that number (28%) actually reported the crime to the police department, which the survey considers "much less" when benchmarking against other cities.

Community and personal public safety also fell short of national benchmarks with 60% of citizens feeling "very safe" or "somewhat safe" from violent crime, 47% from property crimes, 71% from being out after dark in their neighborhood and 45% from being out after dark in the downtown area, all considered "below" or "much below" other cities.

Just 54% of the participants believed crime prevention was "excellent" or "good," also "much below" the national benchmarks, the survey revealed.

Appearance of the community, both overall and pertaining to new development, was also seen as "generally low" compared to national benchmarks. Just 43% of participants believed the overall appearance of Fort Smith was "excellent" or "good," while only 47% said the same of new development quality.

On public trust, the survey revealed that only 38% believe Fort Smith is on the right track, and only 42% believe the local government welcomes citizen involvement. The overall favorable rating of Fort Smith was only 47% in this area.

Fort Smith Director Andre Good cautioned directors on the negative aspects of the survey results.

"We have to be very aware of the times. The economy is bad. People are struggling and are not happy with the government as a whole. It's not just us," Good said.

There was some good news, however, in how citizens viewed city government employees. For those participants, city personnel ranked "well above 50%" across all departments, according to the survey.

Finally, the survey reported that 87% of Fort Smith citizens who responded use mainstream media as a major news source. (The survey combines Internet news and websites, newspapers, television and radio, under the "mainstream" distinction.)

Approximately 38% relied on word of mouth, while 17% used Facebook, 14% Fast Focus (the city's electronic newsletter) and 3% each for blogs and Twitter.

No decisions were made regarding what to do with the results but Fort Smith Administrator Ray Gosack told The City Wire in an interview prior to the study session that "next month we'll have a contract" with a consulting firm to develop a comprehensive plan update, the city's first in 10 years.

Explaining how the plan update would work, Gosack admitted, "Clearly we need citizens involved in helping us define what the issues and what the concerns are, and even in identifying what a desired outcome is."

"We need to use this survey as a measuring stick," said Fort Smith Director Kevin Settle. "I don't think Ray, his staff, or this board have every answer to all these questions. If we think that, we're kidding ourselves. I think that we've got to get the community involved. So what I suggest is that we go get community involvement. We don't just ask and hope people show up to meetings. We have to ask certain people."

Settle suggested reaching out to school districts, civic clubs, the medical community and the business community, to name a few, in moving forward with a strategic plan for citizen involvement.

Full survey results are available at this link as part of the Oct. 30 study session packet available at the city's official website.