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City's 'report card' marks remain good
The city’s report card, drawn from data on city services and input from Island residents, show that it’s performing well in maintaining and improving the life of Islanders.
The city's annual Dashboard Report was developed in 2007 to capture 35 indicators of the 'state of the city.' Barometers range from public safety to infrastructure and community involvement, and are compared against those of similar cities. Mercer Island logged the highest rating— “very good” – on 20 of its 35 indicators and “needs improvement” – the lowest ranking – in four areas: court operations, financial conditions, water utility infrastructure and street and sidewalk maintenance. The “report card” was released in July.
Partly responsible for the city's high rankings in the community safety and security category were fire response times of 6.3 minutes in 2012, compared to an average response time of 6.7 minutes in 2008. Fifty nine percent of the calls responded to last year were made within 6 minutes, compared to 49 percent in 2008.
Mercer Island has consistently been ranked as having the second lowest crime rates of six Eastside cities. When incidents on state routes are excluded, the same is true of its traffic accident ratings. Chip Corder, finance director for the city, who designs and calculates the study, says that’s helped along by the Island’s small retail core.
But the city fared worse in public service delivery. The ratio of court related revenues to expenditures dropped to 94 percent last year from 111 percent in 2011. And the ratio of tax revenues to personnel costs dropped from 1.07 in 2008 to 0.98 in 2012, in part because of the lingering effects of the recession.
“Most [cities] didn’t feel the impact until 2008,” says Corder. “Like everyone else, we struggled. But beginning in 2012 and then in ’13 we finally turned the corner.”
On the other side of the coin though, were outstanding employee retention ratings. The police and fire departments had the highest percentage of employees who had been with the city for 10 years or more: 75 percent. And in keeping with the city's green image, Mercer Island saw a 3.7 percent overall decrease in gas usage in city buildings because of staff energy conservation efforts.
Under the category of public infrastructure street pavement conditions warranted a “very good,” sewer utility infrastructure an “improving” and water utility infrastructure a “needs improvement” because about forty percent of the city's water mains are over 50 years old.
Data, he explains, is used to not only provide a more nuanced view of how the city is faring, but to catch longer term problems before they become unmanageable or too costly. Corder gives the example of last year’s slight utility rate increase. After reviewing the number of water main breaks, sewer system backups and using knowledge of the city’s aging water mains, he was able to present that data to council.
“I used that data to paint a picture of the risk,” says Corder. “It’s not perfect, but it gives council enough sense."
Corder says one of his favorite indicators is an annual survey about the most important problem facing the Island. In 2011, in last year’s survey results, school funding ranked first, followed by the issue of traffic, transportation and parking. In third place was "nothing," indicating that a portion of Mercer Islanders think there aren’t any foreseeable issues facing the Island.
“We’re not perfect,” says Corder. “Everyone has a different definition of what perfect government is, but I think that’s interesting: ‘nothing’ with 11 percent of the vote.”
**CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Dashboard data was used to make a case for a slight utility tax increase. Data was in fact used for a utility rate increase.