The mayor's perception problem

The results are in from Baltimore's latest survey of city residents, and the results should give those in City Hall some pause. In a nutshell, they show that the city is giving residents what they say they want, and it's getting results — only people don't believe it and are less happy with city services than they used to be. Something here doesn't add up.

The survey found that people most often rate the police, fire and emergency medical services, and trash pickup as the most important city services. And they generally rate their neighborhoods as better than the city as a whole when it comes to cleanliness, crime and other measures. That's been consistent in the three years the city has been conducting the survey.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the prohibitive favorite in Tuesday's election, could take some comfort in those findings. They appear to validate her spending priorities — she has worked to protect funding for the police and fire departments above all else, and in fact, her spokesman noted that just 3 percent rated recreation, culture and parks as one of their top two priorities, despite recent uproar about the potential closing of rec centers. Moreover, the survey noted that the percentage of people who are satisfied or very satisfied with city services is up 5 points, and the percentage of people who are dissatisfied or very dissatisfied is down 5 points, compared to 2010.

But put in context, the results should be disquieting for the mayor. Even with the 5-point bump, less than half of city residents — 48 percent — are satisfied with the services they get, despite paying the highest tax rates in the state. Moreover, this year's slight improvement comes after a massive falloff in public satisfaction since 2009, when 63 percent said they were satisfied or very satisfied and just 19 percent were dissatisfied. Now the dissatisfied rating is up to 33 percent. A private business with those kinds of numbers would not be around for long.

What's interesting about the shift in public perception is that it has occurred at a time when little about the management of the city has actually changed. Residents thought police protection was the most important thing, and the police commissioner is the same person as two years ago. Fire was second most important, and the chief hasn't changed. Same with trash pickup. In fact, there has been virtually no turnover at the top of major city agencies, yet ratings for individual services — everything from water to street lighting — are almost all lower than they were in 2009.

One thing has changed since 2009, and that's the mayor. The city survey was former Mayor Sheila Dixon's idea, and, like most of her other policies, it has been carried forward by Ms. Rawlings-Blake, who ascended to the top job in City Hall in early 2010. It would be wrong to conclude from these figures that people thought Ms. Dixon was a better mayor than Ms. Rawlings-Blake; the change also comes at a time when people have soured on government in general. But it is instructive about how people's perceptions of the city are built on more than the rational matrices of positive and negative experiences measured by this survey.

Violent crime in Baltimore has been driven down to levels not seen in decades. As of Wednesday, when the city released the survey, there had been 174 homicides in Baltimore in 2011, down from 186 at the same point last year. That puts the city on pace for just over 200 killings — a massive improvement over the level of violence 10 years ago. Yet 61 percent of those who responded to the survey said violent crime is getting worse. Fifty-eight percent thought drug abuse was getting worse, despite the fact that overdose deaths dropped from 283 in 1999 to 87 in 2009, while treatment is more available than ever.

A spokesman for the mayor says the survey has been a useful management tool for Ms. Rawlings-Blake. She has held the police and fire departments harmless from layoffs and has managed to reduce the number of rotating fire station closures. She has committed to hiring 300 new police officers. Seeing a big disconnect between the importance residents placed on rat control and their satisfaction with the service, Ms. Rawlings-Blake put the Bureau of Solid Waste in charge instead of the Health Department.

Yet people are slightly less satisfied with police and fire services than they were two years ago, and they still give rat control a rating of 4.6 out of 10. The only priority the mayor identified from the survey that people actually rate higher is street maintenance, which bumped up from 5.4 to 5.6, still the fifth-worst rating among the 17 services respondents were asked about despite an effort to increase the number of lane-miles repaved.

Ms. Rawlings-Blake has pitched herself to voters this year as a solid, competent, no-nonsense manager who is responsive to residents' needs. She has a strong case to make. But this survey shows a real disconnect between her administration's priorities and successes and residents' perceptions. If she is ultimately to be successful as mayor, she will need to find a way to close that gap.

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