Misuse of statistics manipulate Minnetrista

“There are three types of lies – lies, damn lies, and statistics.” – Benjamin Disrael

Local governments want more of your money but they want you to hand it over without a fight so they pull out statistics to convince taxpayers to open their wallets. Here are just a few things to look for to see if you’re being manipulated by the numbers.

dwarf_PNG76Omissions: Leaving out something significant that, if known, would lead the reader to a different conclusion from the data presented:

  1. When a city, in an attempt to waylay fears of a tax increase, says their tax rate has stayed the same or is lower than it was before but neglects to reveal that your property valuation has increased substantially and, therefore, the amount you pay is going up.
  2. When the city tells you residents are willing to accept a property tax increase for road maintenance without telling you that 64% of Minnetrista residents indicated they opposed any property tax increase for roads in the community survey (see below).

Using percentages from a small sample size: When a survey uses an insignificant sample size, percentages will always be misleading:

Minnetrista’s community survey asks respondents if they would favor or oppose an increase in property taxes for city street repair/maintenance and 64% said they’d oppose an increase. A very small number (128 people out of 7,000 city residents) indicated they’d favor an increase. That subset of respondents (128 people) was questioned to see how much more they’d be willing to pay. When they indicated various amounts ($5-$30/mo) it was then repeated over and over again that, according to the community survey, the majority of people (which was actually just 118 people: 92% of the 128) are willing to accept an increase in their city property taxes for roads, when, in fact, 64% surveyed said they were opposed. Starting to get the picture of how this works?

Faulty polling: How questions are phrased can influence responses dramatically. A deceptive polling strategy is to precede a question with a narrative designed to prejudice the response or to omit (see above) important data qualifiers. The examples below use a combination of both omission and faulty polling strategies:

  1. Minnetrista’s community survey precedes a question (#49) about whether or not the city should build a gun range saying “there is an unfinished gun range” and “if finished” it would be used by residents. Communicating something as “unfinished” implies that it has been started (which it has not) but not completed and influences a positive response since people generally are averse to leaving things “unfinished”. The truth of the matter is there is empty space with nothing in it that could be built out as a gun range. This survey question also omitted the fact there would be significant, ongoing annual operational and maintenance costs that will increase residents’ taxes over and above the build out costs. Had that been revealed and the phrasing less biased, the responses would likely have been much different. Even so there was little support to use tax dollars to fund the build out, and one would assume no support for tax dollars to fund the maintenance (if they had been aware of it).
  2. This one is my favorite: This survey question precedes another (74) regarding the approval rating of the Mayor and Council with a question that reveals the majority of respondents know “very little” to “nothing at all” about the work of the Mayor and Council but then goes on to ask if they approve or disapprove of the job the Mayor and Council are doing. Remember that next time you hear about the council’s 80% approval rating. Apparently ignorance is bliss.

Community surveys are merely vehicles designed to justify tax increases and reelect incumbents that support them.

July 20, 2018

MINNETRISTA RESIDENTS WERE PRETTY CLEAR RESPONDING TO THE COMMUNITY SURVEY QUESTION ON COMPLETING THE GUN RANGE IN OUR PUBLIC SAFETY BUILDING. OVERWHELMINGLY THEY DIDN’T WANT TAX DOLLARS SPENT ON IT but they did indicate support to finish it if grants or outside funding could be found. What the community survey didn’t tell them was how much the ongoing operation and maintenance expenses would be and where that money would come from. Would they have indicated support if they thought taxpayer dollars would be required for that? How about if they knew the operation and maintenance costs would, over time, be far more than the cost to build out the gun range?

One of the reasons I voted against spending close to $20K (an outrageous amount) on the community survey is it can be used to justify spending on things respondents aren’t fully informed about. The way a question is asked can make certain answers more probable. Leaving out negative information or only stressing benefits about something can quickly make survey results invalid.

I think everyone agrees it would be nice to have a gun range for officer training and public use donated to the city. But unless we can produce a business case showing the revenue from it would cover the ongoing operation and maintenance costs it would be irresponsible to complete it. Right now the city spends less than a couple hundred dollars annually on gun range fees for officer training due to a very generous arrangement it has with a local gun club.

This agenda item will be coming back to the city council soon and I hope we can all agree that the ongoing operation and maintenance costs must be covered 100% by user fees (or other non-taxpayer revenue) in order to approve any proposal to complete the gun range.