Whether you love or want to see it permanently drained, visit the daily or haven’t checked out a book in years, receive email updates about town events or don’t even have internet access – Fair Lawn’s mayor and council want to know.
On Sept. 1, the borough will mail all Fair Lawn property owners and tenants a four-page survey with questions about demographics, municipal engagement and social service preferences in an effort to gauge resident opinion.
The answers provided by residents will inform the council’s future budgetary decisions around what services the town may be forced to reduce or eliminate in wake of today’s harsh economic realities.
“Governing is about setting priorities,” Deputy Mayor Ed Trawinski said at the July 17 council meeting. “I’ve heard so many different points of view from the people of Fair Lawn about what we should cut or how we should deal with it…My priority is to ask the people of Fair Lawn what they want to cut.”
Council unanimously agreed that getting input on future budget decisions from residents was vital, but disagreed on how best to accomplish doing so. Democrats Lisa Swain and Kurt Peluso were hung up on the nearly $7,000 price tag of mailing out more than 12,000 surveys to residents.
“I think it’s a lot more money than we first talked about,” Swain said, referring to the manager’s initial $4,000 cost estimate. “I’m hesitant at this point.”
Borough manager Tom Metzler, who initially proposed the survey and has been a strong advocate for conducting it, said he believed it was the best way to involve residents in the decisions that most affect them.
“Listen, every dollar is important,” he said. “But we’re doing this document so that the voters, the taxpayers, the residents can provide you, as a council, with input as to those amenities that they’re willing to give up in order to keep their taxes down. I don’t know how else to do that.”
As a free alternative, Swain proposed holding a series of town forums for residents to attend and share their thoughts on issues, but Trawinski countered by saying he didn’t think taking such a general approach would work.
“My experience on the council tells me that you’ll get the people whose ox is being gored by whatever the proposal is on the table and the rest won’t come out if there’s not something specific to their concerns,” he said. “If as a result of the survey we are headed in a particular direction for next year’s budget, we should absolutely have hearings on those issues and then on where we’re going, but to do it generally, I don’t think you’re going to get the kind of response that you’re looking for.”
Swain and Fair Lawn Democratic Organization member Joan Goldstein also raised concerns about the typical survey response rate, which Metzler said comes in at about 2 to 3 percent, if you’re lucky.
“So we’re talking about spending several thousand dollars to ask 300 people what they think?” Goldstein asked at the July 17 council meeting. “175 people fit in the rec center. If you hold three free things at the rec center you’re saving the taxpayers of Fair Lawn many thousands of dollars. There are many free opportunities to give your opinion in this town.”
Based on the response the borough received to a Memorial Pool-related survey distributed in the 1990s, Trawinski said he’s expecting more like a 25 percent response rate, but noted that even if the borough receives just 500 responses out of some 12,000 households – a 4.1 percent response rate – he’d consider it a success.
“It’s more expensive than we thought and the odds are we’re going to get a low response,” he said, “but then, you know what…if you don’t exercise your right to respond to a survey, then don’t complain about your elected officials making the best judgment that they make.”
Goldstein also expressed concern over the validity of survey results, given the development of the survey in-house by non-experts, but again, Trawinski asserted that would not be an issue because the survey would be scientific.
He said he consulted with a professional pollster who looked over the survey pro bono and estimated the margin of error at about plus-or-minus 6 percent.
“The pollster said to me, 'For $50,000 I can do about a 20 percent better job, but who ever did this did a pretty gosh darn good job,'” Trawinski said.
The surveys, which must be completed and returned to the borough by Oct. 1 to be considered, were circulated between council and borough department heads for suggestions on numerous occasions. Property owners will receive slightly different survey questions than tenants, but all surveys will ask resident to provide their age, years spent living in Fair Lawn and number of children living in their household, in an attempt to separate what amenities are most important to individuals from various demographic groups in town.
Council also considered the possibility of offering the survey online, but deemed it too expensive at the quoted price of $3 per survey response.
Metzler said that in the end the survey may only complicate the council’s budget decisions, but that it'll never know unless it sends out the survey.
“I believe we’re gonna get through the survey process and we’re going to find out that it’s pretty evenly broke out,” he said. “If you use it, you’re going to fight to keep it. And it’s only going to further complicate it, but we have to wait for that to happen.”