Residents give South Portland, Scarborough high marks, but question economic and jobs development

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SOUTH PORTLAND — An overwhelming majority of residents here and in Scarborough give the overall quality of life in their communities high marks, according to the results of a citizen satisfaction survey.

But respondents were more lukewarm in their assessment of economic development efforts.

South Portland and Scarborough were among several cities and towns to participate in the New England States Performance Measurement Project’s Citizen Satisfaction Survey.

The project was started in 2005 by the New England States’ Government Finance Officers Association, with the goal of providing information to make governments more responsive to residents. The survey and analysis were conducted by the nonprofit Worcester Regional Research Bureau in Worcester, Mass.

South Portland was surveyed in 2009 and again in October 2010. Scarborough was surveyed only in 2010.

In 2010, 96 percent of South Portland respondents said they were satisfied or very satisfied with the quality of life in the city. In Scarborough, 97 percent felt the same way about their town.

The high marks were punctuated in both communities by only relative dips in approval, chief among them cost of living and efforts to attract businesses and jobs – although a majority of respondents in both communities were still at least satisfied in both those areas.

Thirty-four percent of Scarborough respondents were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with their town’s cost of living, and 34 percent felt the same about Scarborough’s efforts to attract new business and jobs. In South Portland, the numbers were 28 percent and 31 percent, respectively, on those issues.

Harvey Rosenfeld, executive director of the Scarborough Economic Development Corp, took the assessment of the town’s business and jobs strategy with a grain of salt.

“We only deal with the business community, not residents,” Rosenfeld said. “The survey didn’t go to any businesses. I think if it did, the numbers would have been different.”

Rosenfeld said most residents don’t have much reason to deal with the town in the area of economic development. He compared asking residents about Scarborough’s efforts to attract businesses and jobs to asking businesses in Scarborough about the schools or library.

“It’s apples and oranges,” Rosenfeld said.

Rosenfeld cited the town’s low property tax rate compared with others towns and cities in the area as one way the town seeks to attract jobs. He also pointed to SEDCO’s recent efforts to ease zoning rules to allow more building coverage in industrial zones, which he said was spurred by companies that want to expand in Scarborough.

“Scarborough is a suburb and feels like one,” Rosenfeld said. “But it also has a really good commercial base that helps pay the taxes. I don’t think people are quite aware of that.”

Among quality-of-life issues, respondents in South Portland were also least impressed with their city’s efforts to attract new jobs and businesses, although 70 percent still said they were at least satisfied.

Lower scores were registered, however, in assessments of neighborhood sidewalks and street lighting, with approval ratings of 59 percent and 66 percent, respectively.

The 31 percent of residents who were unhappy with the lighting in their neighborhoods probably won’t like what City Manager Jim Gailey had to say:

“We are of the opinion, and have been working with City Council for a few years, that we ought to reduce the number of street lights,” Gailey said. “We have an exorbitant number on our main thoroughfares and roads. Even Central Maine Power has told us that for a community our size, we have too many.”

Gailey said powering street lights costs the city $380,000 per year, making it one of the most expensive items in the city budget.

“I don’t know why they’ve responded this way,” Gailey said. “We don’t have very dark neighborhoods. When you drive through the roads in other communities around us, you have the headlights on your car and that’s it. We’re very bright for our size.”

Gailey said the lower ratings for sidewalks and business development made more sense. He said the sluggish economy, especially at the time the surveys were administered, had an effect on people’s perception. He also said that the diminishing amount of undeveloped land in South Portland means fewer big-budget, big-name projects each year.

“That’s what you would have seen in ’80s, ’90s, early 2000s in South Portland,” he said. “As the land has kind of been taken up, we’ve moved into the redevelopment stage.” That kind of development is less visible, he said.

Gailey also said the city tries to repair and replace sidewalks as necessary, but diminishing state and federal funds have slowed the process.

“There are many reasons why our sidewalks have some issues,” he said. “But we are trying to get as much new sidewalk as we can every summer.”

Despite the reservations expressed by some respondents, officials in Scarborough and South Portland are upbeat about the mostly positive response from residents.

“We were very pleased with the results from the survey,” said Ellen Blair, human resources director in Scarborough. Blair said she administered the study in her town.

“Councilors and employees will certainly look at the survey as a tool to give them a sense of residents priorities,” Blair said.

Gailey said the survey would be valuable South Portland, too.

“Any time you can get a read from residents on how you’re doing service-wise, it’s a positive thing,” he said. “It allows me to work with my staff to see what areas we need to pay attention to.”

Mario Moretto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or [email protected]. Follow Mario on Twitter: @riocarmine.