A recently released public opinion poll may provide the Salt Lake Board of Education the justification it needs to raise property taxes to make schools earthquake-proof without holding a referendum election.

The preliminary results of the poll, released to the board Tuesday night, show that 64 percent of the interviewed Salt Lake residents said they would definitely or probably favor increasing property taxes by a 1-mill levy to fix the schools for earthquake safety. Those who are definitely or probably against the tax increase were 27 percent. Only 8 percent of the respondents offered no opinion.The board paid Dan Jones & Associates $10,000 to conduct the random telephone survey to assess public opinion. The board authorized the poll in an effort to help it decide whether to hold a referendum election next fall or raise taxes on its own.

The poll, however, asked residents how the board should resolve the issue. The vast majority - 72 percent - said the board should let the public vote in a referendum election. Only 18 percent said the board should hold public hearings and then vote on its own.

Engineering studies have shown it will cost about $107 million to fix or replace the city's 35 schools for earthquake safety. It is estimated that a taxpayer with a home worth $75,000 will have to pay an average $45 increase per year in property taxes for 20 years to cover the repairs and construction.

Superintendent John W. Bennion said the board will likely wait until next month after Jones presents the full, detailed report before making its decision.

Bennion wouldn't speculate about the board's possible action. But he did say that the board has the legal authority to raise taxes even if a referendum fails.

Jones polled 910 Salt Lake residents by telephone between March 15 and 22. Of the respondents, 284 were residents with students, and 626 were residents without students. The residents were spread out equally among the city's three high school boundary areas. Jones said the error rate is plus or minus 3.2 percent.

The pollster told the board that any result over 60 percent constitutes a "consensus." It means three out of five voters back an issue, he said.

The results supporting seismic safety are even stronger among residents who still have students in school, and they may be most likely to vote in an education referendum, Jones said.

Of the residents with students, 74 percent said they definitely or probably would vote "yes" in a referendum to raise property taxes for earthquake safety in the schools. Among residents without students 61 percent said they definitely or probably favored the tax increase.

Only 18 percent of the respondents with students said they definitely or probably would vote "no" in a referendum. Seven percent said they didn't know how they'd vote.

Of the residents without students 30 percent said they'd definitely or probably vote against the tax increase in the referendum. Nine percent offered no opinion.

Other poll questions also supported the conclusion that residents are worried about earthquake safety in the schools.

The interviewers asked respondents to rate on a scale of one to seven - with one being not important and seven being very important - how important it was to have all schools be earthquake-safe.

The mean score was 5.64. Jones said any mean score over 5 indicates the issue is very important to the respondents.

The mean score was even higher for residents with students - 5.87 - compared with 5.53 for residents without students in school.

The Salt Lake residents were also asked if they're concerned about Salt Lake City experiencing a major quake. The mean score was 4.45. Again, residents with students are more worried about earthquakes. The mean score of those with students was 4.71, compared with 4.32 for those without students.



Earthquake poll

"If a referendum were placed before the public today, would you vote in favor of a 1 mill levy (an annual $45 property tax increase on a $75,000 house) to be used for earthquake safety, upgrading code deficiencies and other maintenance issues?"

Definitely in favor 36%

Probably in favor 28%

Probably against 10%

Definitely against 17%

Don't know 8%