How We Did It
By Mary Erpenbach
First, we made it better: This year’s Rating the Suburbs includes the results of a fresh survey of suburban Dane County residents along with some fascinating new data. Here’s how we pulled it all together.
The new survey is one we commissioned from University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee’s Center for Urban Initiatives and Research (read more here). It had been five years since our last Rating the Suburbs—and even longer since the Center conducted the study we’d used previously. What, we wondered, had changed?
Diversity, for one. In responses about categories that could be reliably measured, diversity made it into the Top Ten concerns of suburbanites in the new survey. It was more important to more people than whether their village had its own public pool. Or how far the commute to Madison was. You can say you knew this already, or that it’s long overdue, but this rejection of monoculture as a suburban ideal is revealing, nonetheless.
In all, we asked thirty-plus questions to get answers directly from our suburban neighbors on what they value in a community—and how much they value it.
Once we had our survey results, we identified a set of ten key, measurable characteristics—crime rates, home costs, school rankings and more—that are often compared from community to community. Then we gathered data on each criterion from local, county and state officials and reports.
As they have done in previous Rating the Suburbs, experts at the UW–Madison Applied Population Laboratory (read more here) once again did the heavy lifting with the data we compiled. They developed a weight, based on survey responses, for each category. For an apples-to-apples comparison, the Lab standardized the data we’d provided and applied the appropriate weight to the data in each category.
Here’s an example: Nearly ninety-eight percent of the people surveyed said crime was somewhat or very important to them in choosing where to live. It ranked No. 1. The mathematical formula allowed us to assign a weight to crime, giving it slightly more importance than the next most significant factor.
Now, a couple of caveats. First, the rate at which homes appreciated—or didn’t—is only a snapshot of how homes here fared during the overall downturn the nation’s real estate market suffered in recent years. Appreciation was once a category you could count on for improvement. That’s changed.
Secondly, as everyone knows, numbers can both enlighten and deceive. Is the bottom-ranked suburb in Dane County really a bad place to live? We’d be the first to say not by a long shot. These are suburbs of Madison, after all, a city that needs its own trophy shelf when it comes to best-of awards.
Furthermore, we’d like to note that any of these communities could rank at the top of any number of lists and that some of them—take a bow, Middleton and Belleville—already have.
Here, then, are explanations of how we gathered and used the numbers, along with the weight of each criterion and its rank according to the survey.
This isn’t really a category; a community’s population didn’t count for or against it in the scoring system. We just thought you’d want to know, and since it's reported in this year’s survey, we thought we’d also tell you that we got our numbers from the 2012 issue of the Dane County Directory.
The Wisconsin Office of Justice Assistance compiles statistics from police departments across the state on index crimes—violent crimes, property crimes and theft—committed in each jurisdiction. We selected our data from the currently available 2011 state report as well as from statistics reported by community police departments, and an extrapolation based on five years of Dane County crime rates. The numbers listed in our Suburban Profiles chart reflect the number of crimes committed per 1,000 population.
Local government spending is tracked in the Wisconsin Department of Revenue County and Municipal Revenues and Expenditures report. Using the most recently reported statistics of 2011, we divided the amount each community spent on police, fire and other public protection by population to get our per capita figure. The theory is that the more a community spends in this category, the safer its citizens are.
A real-world figure: the median price of homes actually sold in each community during 2012. Lower is better.
We used the most recently reported statistics of 2011 and excluded the amount spent on police, fire and other public protection, as well as the spending devoted to parks and green space, and culture and education. Then we divided by population. Because our survey results told us people wanted local government to spend money on services and other amenities, we applied the optimistic concept that the more money government spends on services, the better the people are served.
Rank: 4 (tied with property taxes)
Property tax rates compiled and reported for 2012 by the Dane County Treasurer’s office were multiplied by the cost of a $200,000 home. Now you know how much or how little you’d pay in property taxes on the same home in 21 different communities.
Rank: 4 (tied with government services spending)
This category includes government spending on libraries and other cultural and educational opportunities for residents. We used the amount shown in the Wisconsin Department of Revenue 2011 County and Municipal Revenues and Expenditures report. The more a community spent on this category, the higher they scored in it.
Looking at the median price of homes sold in each community during 2010, 2011 and 2012 gives us the average percent by which that community’s home values appreciated or depreciated during from one year to the next. The South Central Wisconsin Multiple Listing Service Corporation provided the raw numbers for this and the following category.
The state Department of Public Instruction provides data on a myriad of school and student achievement measures. This year, as explained in the “Making the Grade,” portion of Rating the Suburbs, we used DPI’s School Report Cards to address our respondents’ interest in the performance of suburban schools. Communities served by more than one school district reflect either the score of the dominant elementary, middle and high school, or an average that is representative of the different schools serving a community.
Parks & Recreation
It’s not possible to track the exact acreage of which portion of our federal, state and county parks lie within which municipal boundary. We chose to look, instead, at the amount a suburb invested, per person, in parks and recreation, as reported by the Wisconsin Department of Revenue 2011 County and Municipal Revenues and Expenditures report. In this category, too, more is better.
Using racial diversity as one of the most reliably measured sets of data, our figures reflect the percentage of non-white residents in each community, as reported in the 2010 United States.