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Remember the survey on the city’s budget that was filled out online and at public forums?

Lani Lutar, president and CEO of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, told me yesterday that she feared some council members will “cherry-pick” from the report and use it to support a tax increase.

Lutar said that’s especially worrisome because of the survey’s flawed methodology. While it’s crucial to carefully word questions to avoid bias, she noted, council members added in some questions at a committee meeting.

The survey asked people to rate a variety of city services — from public safety to libraries to graffiti removal — as essential or non-essential. Residents also indicated whether they would eliminate or reduce the services and whether they would be willing to pay more for them.

Especially galling, Lutar said, is a summary slide for a presentation at this morning’s Budget and Finance Committee meeting, which starts at 9 a.m. at City Hall. The slide states that “over one-fourth of respondents suggested raising taxes to offset costs.”

“Another way you might look at it is that 75 percent did not suggest raising taxes,” Lutar said.

That open-ended question asked survey-takers to identify “three tax and/or revenue options that should be implemented.” The presentation indicates that 26 percent of the responses called for raising taxes with another 15 percent suggesting charging for trash collection.

However, the report indicates that 1,027 total responses were received. If all 687 people who took the survey had identified three revenue sources, there would be 2,061 responses, indicating that many people provided fewer than three responses or left the question blank altogether. It’s impossible to know why — if they opposed all revenue increases, didn’t have a specific suggestion or just ran out of ink.

Independent Budget Analyst Andrea Tevlin said the presentation was created by San Diego State University officials who compiled the survey results for the city. She didn’t know how they picked the phrasing about tax increases, but she speculated it was presented affirmatively because that’s the way the question was worded.

Councilman Tony Young, the committee chairman, said the survey was not created as a precursor to suggesting revenue hikes. “It was trying to get an idea of what the people of San Diego really wanted in regard to services,” he said.

He also said the survey was never designed to give a definite opinion as to what the “citizens want or don’t want.”

“We understood it’s not a perfect scientific instrument to calculate the moods and wants of the citizens of San Diego, but it is helpful,” Young said. “It does bring us some interesting questions and really allows the committee and council to look at specific things a little more closely.”

The IBA report and SDSU presentation flag some limitations to the survey. Those surveyed were not part of a random sample and that those taking the paper survey seemed to “misunderstand the question format,” leaving many “blank datapoints,” the presentation states.

At today’s meeting, an SDSU official is expected to make recommendations for future surveys, such as using random sampling and bringing in a neutral survey professional at the start.

Young said he hopes the surveys will be refined to follow “best practices” for data collection and be put to greater use in future years.

“As we move forward and look to the budget process next year and the year after, this survey will become increasingly important to our decision-making,” he said. “At this point, it’s kind of a first step.”

RANI GUPTA

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