Mammoth politicians never like to do anything without the cover of an expensive survey conducted by someone who doesn’t live here.
So when it came time to talk about the possibility of extending the Utility User Tax (UUT), the Town spent $16,000 on outside consultant Godbe Research to conduct a telephone survey.
Principal Bryan Godbe was on hand at Mammoth Town Council’s regular meeting Wednesday to present the survey results.
He determined that Mammoth Lakes voters may be willing to extend the tax (which is scheduled to sunset in June, 2011), but that a strong campaign would have to be run.
“There’s no cushion even for a simple majority measure,” said Godbe. Fifty-eight percent of those surveyed initially showed probable/definite support for an extension of the tax, but the degree of uncertainty was measured at approximately 8 percent.
Godbe suggested the UUT rate remain unchanged or even be reduced slightly to gain public support.
Currently, Mammoth residents pay a 2.5 percent tax on their utility bills. Revenue from this tax is dedicated toward paying off debt incurred from parks improvements made in the 1990s.
As of next year, the debt will be repaid. So if the tax goes away, there will be no loss of services.
Mayor Neil McCarroll asked Godbe point-blank if the sunset of the tax was revealed to those who took the survey.
McCarroll said this constituted the omission of a very material fact.
“I think it [the survey] may have been a waste of money,” McCarroll said via a phone interview Thursday. He thinks the non-disclosure jeopardizes the accuracy of the information collected.
“If you want to tax people for another purpose, come right out and say it,” McCarroll said. Simply telling people that their tax burden won’t increase doesn’t reveal the whole truth.
Godbe said he worked with Town Staff to write the survey questions.
One of the questions that rankled Councilman John Eastman was in regard to police staffing.
The survey asked Mammoth residents if they thought having two police officers on duty at any one time constituted the right level of staffing.
Sixty-six percent said yes. Another 21 percent said two wasn’t enough.
Eastman said the question was misleading, as it omitted the on-duty sergeant as part of the staffing calculation.
The Sheet also questioned aspects of the survey methodology. Although the way people communicate is rapidly changing, pollsters still rely on the horse-and-buggy (a home telephone land line) to achieve their survey samples. Therefore, The Sheet wondered whether results would be skewed toward an older, wealthier demographic.
Sheet: I don’t know anyone under 40 who has a home phone.
Councilmember Sugimura: I’m under 40 and I have a home phone.
*The Sheet rests its case.
Godbe said income is not a predictor as to who may or may not support a tax. Age and political affiliation are far stronger indicators.
Godbe did admit he has an unlisted home phone number, so I guess he hates surveys as much as anyone.
What else did the survey reveal? Godbe said it was unusual for a community to rate a 93 percent satisfaction with its quality of life and just 65 percent satisfaction with town services.
Fifty-four percent were either somewhat dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with Council and Staff’s handling of the Town budget.
Seventy-one percent somewhat support or strongly support a restriction of condominium and hotel projects to limit growth.
MLTPA’s John Wentworth is part of a group interested in lobbying for an extension of the tax measure provided it’s a special tax requiring a 2/3 vote and dedicated to a specific cause.
One of those causes that hopes to rally support is the Whitmore Track Project being pushed by Deena and Andrew Kastor and the High Sierra Striders.
Another cause is an Arts/Cultural Center at the College being pushed by Evan Russell, Executive Director of the Mammoth Lakes Foundation.
Russell says he’s got land and about $10 million in potential bond money to contribute. What the College is looking for, however, is a steady funding source for operations.
A Council decision as to whether or not to move forward with putting a tax extension on the June ballot will occur Wednesday, March 10 at 6 p.m. in Suite Z.