Survey: Visalians stayed positive through pandemic

City’s annual Public Opinion Survey shows less than half of Visalians said COVID impacted them significantly and about 9 in 10 people felt their quality of life was average or above

VISALIA – More than half of Visalians say their families were relatively unaffected by the coronavirus in the past year, according to a recent survey.

Visalia’s Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) conducted its annual Public Opinion Survey between March 30 and April 25 to gauge public satisfaction with city services. One of the questions added to this year’s survey was “How much has your family been impacted by COVID-19 in the past year?” While 46% of population said it was affected by COVID “a lot,” more than 44% said only “a little” and about 10% said “not at all.” Those 55 and older said COVID affected them at a higher rate while those 18 to 34 were more likely to say not at all. Low-income residents, those making between $15,000 and $40,000 felt the effects of COVID far more than those who make $100,000 or more.

“It was relieving to see that citizens were not as impacted as we thought,” CAC chair Frank Ruiz said. “Our survey shows that things stayed fairly normal for people. Seeing that Visalians were more resilient through this survey is something good for us to see.”

COVID-19, and its effects on every aspect of life in Visalia, is likely the reason fewer people said they enjoyed a decent quality of life, but the number was still quite high. Eighty-nine percent of respondents viewed their quality of life as being average to very high compared to 92% the previous year. Those saying they had a “low” quality of life was the same as 2019 while those who answered “very low” doubled from the previous two years.

“I think it’s obvious quality of life last year wasn’t the greatest when you look at it overall,” Mayor Steve Nelsen said. “Parents tend to look at quality of life as when their kids can go play soccer or go play baseball, and they couldn’t do that.”

The part of town you live in had little to do with your quality of life with the exception of those living in the northeast, which had the highest percentage of people rating their quality of life as “very low” and the lowest percentage of people rating it “very high.” Northeast residents also had the lowest satisfaction ratings for police. Of the of respondents who had contact with police, 59% overall rated police services “high” or “very high” but those living in the northeast were the least likely to provide that ranking. There didn’t seem to be much of a difference for the northeast in terms of fires service, which was slightly down overall. Of respondents who had contact with fire services, 78% rated the service they received as “high” or “very high,” compared with 82% the previous year.

Nelsen, who lives on the northeast side of town, said it was “pretty evident” why the northeast’s response was on the low end when it came to public safety.

“When you have all your services for homeless people in the northeast, what do you expect to happen?” Nelsen said. “When you have the St. John’s River, with a large concentration [of homeless people], what do you expect is going to happen?”

Homelessness was by far the most common response to what Visalians thought was the most important issue facing the city, followed by trash, as it relates to homelessness, along Highway 198, and then crime, including drugs, which respondents also connected with homelessness. Rounding out the top five were growth/land use/planning and then road maintenance.

Homelessness prompted the city to add a new question to this year’s survey about a low-barrier shelter, meaning a place where the homeless can sleep which does not require any religious programming, doesn’t split up couples and families, and allows pets. Visalians were split on their interest in a low-barrier shelter in Visalia with 51.79% saying yes and 48.21% saying no. When asked if they would support a tax measure to fund the shelter, 42% said yes and 58% said no. While there is no tax measure supporting a homeless shelter in Visalia, the city has allocated $5 million over five years to design, construct and operate a low-barrier shelter, also known as a navigation center. In June the council voted to locate the shelter on land across from the Riverway Sports Park in the northeast section of the city.

As age increases, quality of life tends to follow in Visalia. The same can be said of income. Older Visalians tend to care more about traffic maintenance and road maintenance while those under the age of 34 care more about park maintenance and recreation. COVID had a greater affect on the latter. In 2020, usage of every city venue dropped dramatically. Last year, people went downtown, to the convention center and to parks less often. The number of people visiting the convention center more than five times dropped from 6% to 1%, three or four times from 15% to 2%. Those who did not go to the convention center at all increased from 35% to 84%. Downtown was less affected with the number of people who visited the area five or more times dropping from 67% to 50% but those visiting between 1 or 2 times and 3 or 4 times increased from 12% to 19% and 15% to 16%, respectively.

“This just goes to show you which city venues were really impacted by people having to stay home,” Ruiz said.

Councilmember Brian Poochigian was surprised there were less people using the parks and city trails last year than in 2019. The number of people who did not visit a park at all increased from 24% to 41% and the number of people who never stepped foot on a city walk/run/bike trail increased from 50% to 53%, although those using them at least five times in the year saw a modest increase from 17% to 20%.

“For me, being home with the family, when everything was shut down, we were trying to go to the parks or use trails or walk around my neighborhood,” Poochigian said. “I thought that number would be a lot higher. And it’s very surprising that it’s still kind of low.”

Part of that issue might be explained by the low response rate from those 34 years old and younger, who represented just 12.6% of respondents. Public works manager Jason Serpa told the council this year’s survey was more representative of the community because it had a larger sample size, the largest in the survey’s history. For the last four years, the committee had conducted the survey using a combination of in-person and online surveys. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Serpa said the survey was only conducted online this year and was coupled with a more substantial outreach plan from the city’s communications manager Allison Mackey.

“I personally sat at tables when no one would fill out my survey … even if I handed out free bags of candy,” Serpa said. “It was like pulling teeth.”

Yet the survey still skewed more female than male, was mostly those 35 years and older and predominantly white (53.3%). All but 5% were registered voters, eight in 10 were homeowners and three quarters have lived in Visalia for at least 10 years.

Councilmember Greg Collins said he felt the survey needed to capture more response from renters, which account for 40% of the city’s population according to the U.S. Census, but was happy with the higher response rate overall.

“In the past, I think the people that were very pro Visalia would take the time to stop by and fill out a survey,” Collins said, “whereas this is a broader response from the community, which is good and a truer reflection.”

Major takeaways from this year’s survey were that homelessness is still an unsolved problem, people seem more satisfied with road maintenance, drug crime, gangs and street racing remained issues on the public’s mind. New this year were residents concerned with water conservation, fiscal transparency and the growing problem of mosquitoes. Poochigian, one of three councilmembers who have been critical of the Delta Mosquito and Vector Control District, said he wasn’t sure what to do about mosquitoes saying it didn’t seem like the mosquito abatement district was doing enough, despite having recently passed a property tax assessment to generate $1 million per year specifically to combat the invasive and aggressive non-native mosquito species aedes aegypti.

“Mosquitoes are becoming a big issue,” Poochigian said.

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