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However, 'yes' campaign may be necessary to ensure voter approval of a ballot measure

CENTRAL OREGONIAN - A recent county-wide survey suggests a bond measure for a pool would pass in Crook County.

Survey says a majority of Crook County voters would support a bond measure to build a new aquatic center in Prineville.

However, the margin between potential yes and no votes is narrow enough that a campaign on behalf of such a measure is recommended.

A citizen-led advisory committee has spent the past few months trying to determine how best to replace the aging Prineville swimming pool, which was built more than 60 years ago and has become increasingly expensive to maintain and repair.

Data provided by a recent feasibility study determined that a year-round indoor facility that met stated public needs, including a competition pool and water slide, would cost about $28 million to build.

The committee then hired a FM3 Research, a California-based public opinion research firm, to conduct a scientifically valid survey to determine if voters would support a bond measure to build an aquatic center.

That survey took place from Feb. 14-21, and FM3 made contact with 671 total residents online, by land line telephone and by cell phone. The results of that survey were announced at a Prineville City Council meeting Tuesday evening.

"Everyone we spoke to was a registered voter who, based on their past voting behavior, is considered likely to cast ballots in the (2018) November election," said Dave Metz of FM3.

The first group of questions sought to determine the views of voters regarding the leadership of Crook County. People were asked if they felt the county was "headed in the right direction."

"It gives you a sense of the gut feeling people have about their community," Metz explained.

About 58 percent of respondents said the county was headed in the right direction compared to 21 percent saying it was headed the wrong direction.

"Here in Crook County, people feel very positively about how things are going," Metz deduced. "Going hand in hand with that, they also have a very positive feeling about local government."

The survey revealed that 64 percent of voters approve of city government, 70 percent view county government in a positive way, and 77 percent approve of parks and recreation leadership.

Metz went on to highlight survey data that suggests voters consider the condition of the current pool as a serious community problem. Respondents were asked to rate the importance of different local issues from the cost of housing or health care to homelessness, public safety or how much people pay in local taxes.

"We wanted to understand how people view the pool in the context of other community concerns," Metz said.

Housing costs topped the list, with 66 percent of respondents rating as either an extremely or very serious problem. Cost of health care followed at 62 percent, then jobs and the economy at 55 percent.

The condition of the pool followed at 52 percent while the amount of local taxes paid came in at 31 percent, below other concerns like homelessness, public education quality and lack of activities for local youth.

"That's an important marker," Metz said. "There is more concern about the pool than there is about local tax rates."

The survey then went on to mine data regarding local pool use. FM3 found that about 80 percent of the respondents do not use the pool and the 20 percent who did are predominantly women and are parents of school-age children and under the age of 50.

Those who do not use the current pool were then asked if they go to a neighboring community to swim in its pool. Only 24 percent said they did, however when those same people were asked if they would use an upgraded Prineville pool, 52 percent said they likely would.

Metz said that response is not typical and is a good sign for bond measure support.

"In a lot of other communities … we find a large group of people who are just non-swimmers, but that's not what we are seeing here."

FM3 then tried to gauge how voters would respond to a ballot measure if presented with one for a $28 million facility featuring two indoor pools — one for recreation and one for competition — and an outdoor pool with a water slide.

"We have found that the most accurate way to assess the level of support that the public offers for a measure like this is to read them draft wording for the question as it might appear on the ballot," Metz explained.

Respondents were asked, if the election were held today, if they would definitely vote yes or no, probably approve or oppose it, or lean toward a yes or no vote. About 54 percent of respondents answered with some form of yes, compared to about 41 percent saying no, signifying a narrow margin of victory.

However, Metz noted that some deep divisions emerged in people's answers. About 32 percent of respondents said they would definitely vote yes on the measure, but an almost equal 30 percent said they would definitely oppose it. This left him characterizing the results as soft support for a ballot measure since the "probably" and "lean" votes made up the bulk of the difference in responses.

Survey respondents were then asked to explain why they would or would not support the measure. The top reasons supporters gave? It would fund a year-round, indoor pool and it would provide a good and safe place for children and the elderly to recreate.

"Not surprisingly, the number one reason (for a no vote) by a mile is not wanting to have an increase in taxes (48 percent)," Metz said, "followed by the notion that it is too expensive (18 percent) and then the sense that it isn't needed or the respondent wouldn't use it."

To further analyze the thoughts of voters, the survey provided more information about what the bond measure would fund. Respondents were told the $28 million would fund a new indoor recreation pool, new indoor competition pool and new outdoor pool and water slide.

This swayed the responses more in favor of the measure, with 58 percent approving and 38 percent voting no, plus the percentage of "definitely yes" responses rose to 40 percent while "definitely no" answers dropped to 29 percent.

However, when different positive and negative messaging was introduced during the survey, the opinions swung back the other direction slightly. Stating that the measure only funded pool construction and not pool operations changed some opinions as did messaging that highlights the increase in taxes and cost of living the bond measure would cause.

Yet respondents rated the negative messaging less convincing than positive messages that highlighted the age and disrepair of the current pool and how a new facility would provide more opportunities for swimming lessons.

The survey also found that voters would offer more support for a less expensive facility. About 37 percent of respondents prefer the $28 million, three-pool facility, but about 25 percent favor a $24 million version that eschews the outdoor pool option.

"There is a sizeable number of voters who might be open to something that is a little bit more modest in scale," Metz observed.

Survey analysis concluded that a pool construction bond measure appears viable for the November 2018 election because of the voter confidence in local government and continued support after hearing pro and con messages.

However, because support for the measure is soft and because negative messages can be highly persuasive, FM3 believes "a well-organized private 'yes' campaign would likely be critical to a measure's success."

Crook County Parks and Recreation District's executive director Duane Garner said that the advisory committee will take the information provided by FM3 and decide whether or not to recommend pursuit of a countywide bond measure.

"The next step has not been determined at this point," he said.

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