Every household in Croton-on-Hudson recently received an enclosure to the monthly yellow village newsletter. Printed on a magenta-colored sheet, it was titled “Community Center Survey to [sic] Residents of the Village of Croton-on-Hudson.” Croton’s population was estimated at 7,862 in 2004, the latest year for which an estimate is available. The Village’s newsletter mailing list has about 3,000 names of Croton “households” on it—although the mailing also goes to businesses whose owners may not live in Croton. This means that while about 3,000 questionnaires were mailed—a number constituting some 38 percent of Croton’s total estimated population—the remaining 62 percent of Croton’s population (excluding infants) may or may not have seen the questionnaire yet they would be prospective users of a community center.
Careful study of this document reveals it to be seriously flawed. First and foremost, Crotonblog has never been aware of a necessity for a broad-based community center, nor have we detected any serious groundswell of agitation on the part of village residents for such a facility. Hunger for a community center (pompously called a “functionality” in the survey) germinated in the minds of Mayor Schmidt and Trustees Brennan and Steinberg, who incorporated it as a prominent plank in the Republican platform in 2005. The community center committee became Mr. Brennan’s responsibility with the defeat of Mr. Steinberg by Ms. Gallelli. The survey at hand, long promised by Mr. Brennan, is the work of a committee that labored for about a year and included the following Croton residents: Marcus Aarons (R), Marie Considine (D), Don Daubney (R), Lori Noel (R), Gary Petit (R), Karen Zevin (D). How the unbalanced composition of the committee was arrived at has never been satisfactorily explained. Crotonblog has to wonder how and why members of the committee were chosen and why certain community groups now active in Croton are not represented.
In Crotonblog’s humble opinion, before a survey questionnaire was circulated, one might have expected that the committee would survey the experience of those other villages in Westchester County with community centers—if any—in an effort to discover such crucial information as the genesis of their community centers, sources of financing (gifts, bequests, taxes, admissions fees, etc.), what facilities its community center offers, the size of the staff needed to operate it, the cost of building and operating its community center, the size of the bite its annual operating costs take out of that community’s budget, and the annual cost per resident of its community center, excluding admission fees and other usage fees. An important item of information would be the proposed admission charge to residents for using each of the services. Admission charges turned out to be one of the sticking points that doomed the skate park after it opened. Such detailed information is absolutely necessary before any public facility is contemplated. Had the village of Croton-on-Hudson made such a study of skate parks and their operating problems, the costly, underused and now-defunct white elephant of a skate park would never have been built.
Instead of gathering and promulgating such information, the committee has created a survey that dangles a host of sugarplum dreams and goodies before Croton’s residents. At the outset, there’s a glaring flaw in the survey’s statistical method. The committee expects the responder to answer on behalf of all other members of the household, a practice that immediately opens the survey to charges of incompleteness. Since not all members of a single household will necessarily be of the same opinion, Crotonblog has to wonder how much validity a one-response-per-household survey can have in representing the opinions of every member of a household.
In Sections 1 and 2 it asks one householder to record the opinions of other household members and to enumerate the activities that members of the household participate in and to identify specifically those that are engaged in at community centers in other municipalities. The unsupported presumption, of course, is that these activities would automatically be transferred to a Croton community center were it to be constructed. But the survey does not ask the most important question: whether such transfer of usage could be counted upon.
Section 3 asks residents to indicate which facilities or activities would be “used by members of my household.” Another category reads “important for other residents.” Asking responders to characterize activities in terms of their importance to others is a foolish and unreliable request.
Among the activities listed in Section 3 are:
Section 3 also invites residents to add any goodies in the way of facilities or activities the committee may have missed. Crotonblog intends to suggest that a roller-skating or ice skating rink and a rock-climbing wall would be nice additions to the wish list. Other responders may suggest adding to the facilities such missing niceties as a hot tub or sauna or a Turkish bath.
Crotonblog is breathless at the scope of activities that might be going on in the beehive of activity that will be the new community center. But Crotonblog would also point out that many of the enumerated activities are now being conducted in existing facilities. And Crotonblog also wonders whether a swimming pool would not be a better addition to a high school that does not have one, rather than as an addition to a community center. The Croton Free Library already has an auditorium, as do the high school and middle school, which are even larger. The high school and middle school also have gymnasiums. Because the survey does not instruct responders to choose only one of the five possible responses, a paradox could arise in Section 3 if a responder simultaneously marked one of five items as “somewhat important” and “somewhat unimportant” and would be entirely correct in doing so. Clearly, the designers of this survey are not logicians. Such anomalies also cast doubt on the ability of anyone to interpret the results of the survey.
One can get an idea of the lack of impartiality with which the committee approached this survey from the way in which Section 5 is worded. It consists of six affirmative statements and asks responders to agree or disagree by offering five boxes to be marked representing levels of agreement of disagreement. This subtle technique takes the survey completely out of the realm of impartiality and puts responders in the position of accepting or denying the survey makers’ positive statements. It makes the survey tantamount to a “push poll”—an opinion poll full of loaded questions or statements intended to sway the opinions of those polled. Moreover, an ambivalent responder would be entirely correct in marking an x in the box labeled “somewhat agree” and another x in the box labeled “somewhat disagree” to any of the statements in Section 5 without violating the rules of logic.
This survey questionnaire appears to be inappropriately modeled on currently popular polling techniques employed to predict the outcome of elections or surveys to determine customer satisfaction with consumer products. Five categories of response are provided on this survey to measure the degree of interest or disinterest in a community center and the services it might offer. But a survey to determine the wisdom of making a major capital investment by the village is a far cry from a survey to determine voters’ levels of willingness to vote for a candidate or consumers’ degree of satisfaction with a recently purchased product. Crotonblog expresses the hope that decisions about expenditures of the magnitude of a community center will not be based on the attitudes of responders who regard the several proffered facilities dangled before taxpayers as “somewhat important.”
Section 4 asks a series of foolish, no-brainer questions about what obviously should be basic requirements. These should have been among the first questions asked. The lead question matches the tone of the rest of the questionnaire by asking responders to gauge how important is adequate parking to a community center. It’s all downhill from there, with follow-up questions about the importance of adjacent outdoor space, hours of operation, closeness to the village center, and asks responders to supply others. How about a question about the community’s need for a consolidated community center?
The items in Section 5 on which responders are belatedly asked to display the degree of their interest are:
NOTE: Four of the above items, a fitness center, full basketball court/gymnasium, theater, and office/storage space for nonprofit groups, were not included in Section 3. This disjointed presentation gives the survey the odor of a bait-and-switch operation.
Unfortunately, too, the questions asked in Sections 4 and 5 are not conditional on answers to preceding questions nor are they mutually exclusive. Crotonblog wonders how the committee intends to resolve the dilemma in which responders are against building a community center but are in favor of a swimming pool or gymnasium in such a center? Crotonblog’s quibbles about the lack of logic or careful thought in designing this document may be academic because the one question the committee fails to ask—and the first question it should have asked itself even before circulating the questionnaire-is this: “Even if the entire village were in agreement about wanting a consolidated community center and were willing to foot the bill for construction, staff salaries, benefits, insurance and operating expenses, where could we put it?”
Curiously, given the importance of the issues under consideration, the absence of control numbers on the questionnaire or the failure to require responders to identify themselves leaves the door open to malicious duplications or tilting of responses to favor certain positions. The biggest howler is this prominently displayed statement in a document that does not require responders to identify themselves: “All of your responses will remain confidential.” In Crotonblog’s reading, these reassuring words can only be interpreted to mean that the committee tacitly acknowledges its survey was so ill conceived and so badly executed the results will never be revealed to the public. Is the village going to undertake the construction of a facility costing taxpayers millions of dollars on the basis of a sheaf of anonymous, unscientific questionnaires of unverified origin? Crotonblog hopes not.
SUMMING UP: The rambling survey document mailed to Croton residents reminds Crotonblog of Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock’s famous story about the fellow who “flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions.” Designing a meaningful questionnaire should be undertaken with a clear understanding of the information to be elicited and with questions sucinctly framed to elicit such information. This survey appears to be the brainchild of a committee with champagne-and-caviar tastes attempting to create a showpiece facility for a community with a beer-and-pretzels pocketbook. In Crotonblog’s opinion, an ambitious community center such as this committee’s survey envisions would undoubtedly be a wonderful addition to Croton—providing, of course, that we could find a location for it and ante up the money to pay for and operate it without burdening taxpayers with astronomical taxes. In that event, Crotonblog suggests that we go the whole hog and build it as a replica of the Taj Mahal in India. That would truly put Croton on the map. And just as surely put it on the road to the poorhouse.