WALNUT CREEK -- In this affluent community with safe neighborhoods and clean parks, residents said in a recent poll that their number one complaint is the traffic.
The number-two response was "nothing." That's right -- a good share of those asked have no complaints. Walnut Creek, to many, is Mayberry.
This is great news for city leaders but also a mixed blessing at a time officials are attempting to gauge how well voters understand that budget deficits loom, and that service cuts may follow.
The new poll by EMC Research, released last week, shows that 76 percent of residents think Walnut Creek is headed in the "right direction." The poll, commissioned by the City Council, asked about 400 residents questions over the telephone during the first week of September. Of those polled, 33 percent were ages 18-49, 27 percent were 50 to 64 and 23 percent 75 and older. EMC was paid $20,000 for the polling work, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percent.
"You have a very happy electorate who have a great deal of trust and confidence in their city government in a way we just don't see very often anywhere else in America," said Alex Evans of EMC Research at a City Council meeting last week.
But the poll shows that the average voter in Walnut Creek is unaware the city is facing budget problems.
After years of city leaders talking about millions in unfunded needs, only one-third of those polled had heard about the city's financial issues, and of those a minority believe the city will have to cut programs if more money isn't found.
City Manager Ken Nordhoff predicts a $2 to $5 million deficit starting next fiscal year. "We need to reach out to the people we aren't reaching," he said.
The City Council has not formally voted on a tax measure for the November 2014 ballot. But council members did give city staff authority to plan for new tax revenue when crafting the next two-year budget.
Of respondents who that think they understand the city's financial woes, voters are evenly divided on how to fix the problem, with 45 percent saying new taxes and fees are needed and 46 percent saying the city should cut spending. And more than two thirds agree that the best way to fix the budget problem is to attract new businesses.
Some of the poll results are confusing because those questioned sometimes contradicted themselves.
"There is (one answer) that says the city doesn't manage (taxpayer) money well, but yet then they say they trust us to manage their money," said Mayor Cindy Silva. "To me, there is a little bit of an oxymoron."
Evans said it indicates that voters won't give the city carte blanche to do what they want, but that the hard work city leaders have done is appreciated.
The poll asked residents how often they shopped in Walnut Creek, whether they attend shows at the Lesher Center or have used the city's swimming pools. For services at risk of cuts, such as the additional open hours at the two county libraries, the poll shows libraries are well used. More than 30 percent of respondents had used the library more than 12 times in the past year, and 24 percent used it three to 12 times in the last year. But other services, such as senior programs and the community pools, were used by a small minority of those polled.
The poll also found that residents' highest priority city service overwhelmingly is police, followed by road maintenance.
"In particular, (a measure) that addresses police services would likely be the most successful," Evans said.
But exactly what if any tax measure, is put on a future ballot is unclear. To gauge whether such a measure would pass, more polling would be necessary, city leaders said.
Communications manager Gayle Vassar said the city will likely unveil some sort of outreach roadshow to the public on the city's financial woes in November.
"The road show is our opportunity to explain to people that we do not have enough money to continue life as we know it," she said.
To view the full poll results go to www.walnut-creek.org, click on "quick links" then "public meetings" and find the Oct. 1 meeting report.
Contact Elisabeth Nardi at 925-952-2617. Follow her at Twitter.com/enardi10.