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Side by side, both South o' the River, sharing I-35W and a pair of major school districts, changing in similar ways, Scott and Dakota counties have much in common -- and yet they are hardly perfect mirror images of one another.
And those differences emerged when the two counties jointly commissioned a mail-out, mail-back public opinion survey asking residents to evaluate the place they live and the folks whom they've elected.
Here's a sample of some marked differences between them, and our thoughts about what the numbers might reflect. We invite readers to respond as well, and we'd be delighted to print some readers' thoughts on these same issues in the weeks to come.
What residents like most about living in the county
Location Scott 16%, Dakota 31%
Small-town feel Scott 12%, Dakota 6%
Rural Scott 8%, Dakota 3%
Schools Scott 3%, Dakota 6%
A "small-town feel" is often a goal of even fairly urbanized suburbs. But as a Dakota commissioner was quick to admit, Scott County is just plain more small-town than Dakota: It is dotted with actual, historic small towns, with substantial populations, far removed from the suburban clamor, as well as lots of folks on acreage in the townships. Many of Dakota's historic small towns have been swallowed up by growth and morphed into suburbs.
Who really has the best "location?" Scott County is located much closer to the major evolving job center of recent decades, namely the Interstate 494 crescent: Eden Prairie, Minnetonka, Edina and other communities. In that sense, its location is better, not worse.
But pinning down the reasoning is not so easy since the question didn't ask what people liked about their location.
Considering another angle, people in Dakota can reach downtown St. Paul and Minneapolis with ease. Dakota is also much closer to the international airport.
Or, "location" also can relate to ease of travel to work. Folks on both sides face congestion, but Dakota has a much more highly developed transit system. Because there are so many more jobs right at home in the county (170,000 versus 41,000, according to a Met Council report in December), many more Dakota folks can get to work without crossing rivers, which is a huge plus and one that Scott envies and hopes to emulate.
Scale of 0-100, 0 being "poor" and 100 "excellent"
Recreational opportunities Scott 59, Dakota 67
Overall image or reputation Scott 58, Dakota 67
Ease of travel by transit Scott 37, Dakota 44
Employment opportunities Scott 35, Dakota 44
Considering the scale is 0 to 100, the counties aren't that far apart on any of these measures. But there are differences.
Dakota has more jobs and is home to by far the metro area's busiest suburban transit system. Neither county is anywhere near where it wants to be in fully developing parks or trails, so Dakota's better score is puzzling.
One big difference, though: Dakota is much further along in developing an extensive system of recreational trails, while Scott's is still in the planning stages, with uncertainty as to what will be built and when. As Dakota commissioner Tom Egan puts it, "Trails are the most popular thing we do."
(Scale of 0-100, 0 being "not a problem," 100 being "major problem.")
Foreclosed properties: Scott 65, Dakota 57
Taxes: Scott 65, Dakota 51
Scott is more affluent than Dakota, so both of these results are interesting. A much higher percentage of Scott's housing stock is of recent origin, and partly for that reason Scott's foreclosure rate is higher. Dakota's tax rate -- they often boast it is the lowest in the state -- is lower than Scott's, partly because a massive commercial-industrial tax base helps moderate taxes on homes. But the tax answers may also have to do with politics. Partly because of its basic layout, featuring lots of large-acreage homes in the countryside, Scott County is much more conservative. Last fall, for instance, stoutly right-wing Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer did much better in Scott (56 percent of the vote) than in Dakota (47 percent).
Most serious issues
Taxes Scott 31%, Dakota 20%
Economic development Scott 22%, Dakota 12%
Growth/development Scott 16%, Dakota 12%
Traffic congestion Scotet 9%, Dakota 6%
Schools Scott 8%, Dakota 13%
The difference in economic development may have to do not only with Scott's comparative lack of jobs but with the long distances that folks in the remoter Scott communities have to travel to get to a Target or a Wal-Mart or other shops and restaurants.
With homebuilding and population growth rates way, way down in both counties in recent years, however, it's notable that population growth is no longer the huge negative with folks that it has been in past surveys.
Approval of county board
Strongly approve Scott 6%, Dakota 16%
Somewhat approve Scott 68%, Dakota 70%
Somewhat disapprove Scott 22%, Dakota 12%
Strongly disapprove Scott 4%, Dakota 2%
Average approval rating Scott 59%, Dakota 66%
Certainly, many people didn't know how to answer this question because they aren't that familiar with their county board. Nearly half of Dakota respondents said they didn't know, and in both counties, residents gave low scores on their knowledge of the county board's work.
Yet, especially at election time, Scott's commissioners are much grumpier about one another, and that can't help their collective image. But there are substantive differences, too.
While Scott has plenty to boast of, much of it is subtler in nature than Dakota's boasts. Thanks in part to its ability to attract outside money, Dakota has been delivering solid improvements, despite a low tax rate: More new trails, a new rapid busway system with new stations in Apple Valley and Eagan, a series of newly and beautifully renovated libraries, and so on.
Arguably, the Scott board's most recent triumph was the state and federal decision to erase the hated stoplights at Interstate 494 and Hwy. 169, but that goes so far beyond just Scott that it may not be adequately credited. Tax rates and conservative tax pushback likely have a role here as well. Scott taxpayers are likelier than Dakota's to be still paying for things like new schools, pushing tax rates higher, and unhappiness may spill over to the county itself.
Some of these same observations probably cover the next few items as well:
Overall quality of county services
Excellent Scott 7%, Dakota 13%
Good Scott 55%, Dakota 65%
Fair Scott 35%, Dakota 21%
Poor Scott 2%, Dakota 1%
Perception of government (0-100 scale)
Value of services for taxes paid Scott 39, Dakota 46
Job done in managing tax dollars Scotet 37, Dakota 44
Ratings for County services (0-100 scale)
Libraries Scott 71, Dakota 80
Parks and rec Scott 71, Dakota 80
Public transport Scott 44, Dakota 48
Ratings for County employees (0-100 scale)
Courtesy Scott 77, Dakota 71
Scott doesn't lead in too many things, but here it does. Scott is much smaller and more countrified, and has more of a family feel to its courthouse and other facilities. Dakota has a series of "service centers," versus Scott's more homey courthouse. Scott seldom introduces metal detectors at its courtrooms, and there's free coffee from a percolator inside the front door.
If the county had to cut something, what would you cut?
Sheriff patrols Scott 32%, Dakota 24%
Road maintenance, plowing Scott 17%, Dakota 12%
A lot more folks in Scott live out in the countryside where these things are paramount, so this is a real headscratcher. Any reader with thoughts on this one is welcome to send them in.
David Peterson • 952-882-9023