People and motives behind recent phone survey on proposed 1 cent tax a mystery

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It appears to be anyone’s guess as to who commissioned a recent phone survey of local feelings on a proposed 1 cent sales tax hike. However, you can cross the most logical suspects off the list: the telephone survey was not ordered or paid for by the Powell, Cody, Meeteetse or Park County governments. Those governments did sponsor a mail survey about a possible 1 cent sales tax hike, but that wrapped up in April.

The amount of support shown in those results appears to have convinced government officials that, in November’s general election, they should ask voters to approve a fifth cent of sales tax to fund $13.68 million worth of infrastructure projects.

However, some local residents recently got phone calls from a market research organization, asking them to take a new 20-minute survey about a possible 1 cent sales tax hike. People who participated said the questions were specifically tailored to Park County’s 1 cent tax, but that it was clear the callers were working for a non-local company. (For example, they asked about the possible widening of Powell’s Absaroka Street, but mispronounced Absaroka.)

The Tribune has been unable to determine who ordered the survey or why.

Meeteetse Mayor Bill Yetter, who got one of the calls, said the questions posed to him appeared to have been directly lifted from the previous mail survey. Yetter said the survey didn’t seem to be pushing any agenda.

However, Cody resident Serge “Pete” Joskow said the questions posed to him felt biased toward the tax and he indicated the questions differed from the mail survey.

In a letter to the Cody Enterprise criticizing the phone survey, Joskow recalled being asked, “Would the knowledge that the mayor of Cody stated that certain services in Cody would need to be eliminated unless the measure is adopted make you more likely, less likely or have no effect on your support for the tax?”

No question like that appeared on the governments’ earlier survey by mail.

Joskow is adamantly opposed to hiking the sales tax and was initially eager to offer his thoughts in the phone survey. However, he concluded from the questions — administered by a female caller from northern California — that it was pro-tax “propaganda.”

“There was zero curiosity,” Joskow said of his impression. “It was kind of a re-education and co-option attempt.”

Park County Commission Chairman Tim French, a leading tax opponent, said he heard other people similarly say the survey seemed slanted toward the tax.

Joskow theorized the survey could have been geared toward “how to phrase the issue on the ballot to make it palatable,” but that cannot be the case: officials from Powell, Cody, Meeteetse and Park County have already started drafting that ballot language — and they know nothing about the poll or its findings. Powell City Administrator Zane Logan hadn’t even heard about the phone calls until being contacted by a Tribune reporter on Monday.

As for who would want to collect data about the tax or promote it with a poll, “we have no clue who that would be,” said Cody City Administrator Barry Cook.

Several people who got the calls said interviewers refused to say who was behind the survey.

“I did my level best to get the survey (administrator) to disclose who was doing this and they wouldn’t,” Yetter said. “It’s very strange.”

After hearing a description of the poll, Stephen Bieber — the executive director of Wyoming Survey & Analysis Center at the University of Wyoming — said it seemed “incredibly odd.”

Bieber said legitimate organizations will immediately identify where they’re calling from, who they’re representing and what they’re trying to do.

“I’d say that’s seriously unethical,” Bieber said of the interviewers’ apparent refusal to disclose that information. “That tells you almost immediately that this is some sort of ‘fly-by-night’ operation.”

Bieber said phone polls can be expensive or cheap, but he said having it conducted by out-of-state interviewers likely made it pricier.

What value the survey data might hold is also unclear. As Cody administrator Cook noted, “outside the boundaries of the county, it’s irrelevant.”

Plus, “What would you do with the data at this late date?” said Park County Commissioner Loren Grosskopf. “We (local governments) are already moving forward.”

Grosskopf said the legitimate mail survey conducted by the governments earlier this year (at a cost of $13,464.21) offered enough information to make a decision; they’d opted not to do a phone survey because their consultant advised there weren’t enough households with registered voters in the county to get a good sample.

“As a strategy, it seems like a total waste of money at this point,” commissioner French said of the recent phone poll.

The phone number apparently used to contact one Powell resident was 844-283-5487. Calling that number accesses a pre-recorded message saying, “you have reached a market research organization.”

“We apologize for any inconvenience our call has been for you, but assure you that we are not selling anything nor soliciting for any donations,” says the recording. “The objective of our calls is to gather your opinion on an array of important issues facing our nation so that a representative direction can be set for both American government and business entities.”

Some users of the website 800notes.com say the phone number has been used by American Directions Research Group. It’s a Washington, D.C.-based data collecting business that says it interviews millions of people each year on behalf of public and private clients.

A Tuesday phone call to American Directions Research Group’s corporate headquarters was routed to a staffer who said that — although he didn’t work in the business’ calling operation — he did not think the firm had done a poll about a tax in Park County.

“It doesn’t sound familiar,” he said. The man said he would check and call back if the company had any information to share.

In coming weeks, the Powell, Cody and Meeteetse councils and county commission will vote on whether to put the $13.68 million specific purpose tax on the November ballot.

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