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Brandi Jewett, Forum News Service, Published March 11 2013

Grand Forks may challenge city's census count as too low

GRAND FORKS - City leaders here plan to challenge the Census Bureau because they believe it’s wrong about the city’s population and, as a result, the city received less federal funding than it should have.

“The anecdotal evidence we have is that the city is probably growing faster than the census (indicates),” City Council President Hal Gershman said last week .

The last two decennial censuses were preceded by major events that led to a significant population drop: the Flood of 1997 and the loss of Grand Forks Air Force Base’s aerial refueling mission.

But the city’s population rebounded within a relatively short time, city staff reported.

Census data is used in formulas that determine funding or even eligibility for grants, according to Greg Hoover, the city’s director of urban development. Having accurate data is important because missing people means missing money.

City leaders say the city has grown more than is reflected in the 2010 census, and they plan to challenge those numbers and the upcoming population estimate. They will also ask the Census Bureau for a cost estimate of a special census to be done before 2020.

The 1990 census reported Grand Forks’ population as 49,425. Ten years later, the population had dropped by 104, a 0.2 percent decrease.

Hoover estimates that 4,000 people left the city after the 1997 flood, and had just started returning as more housing became available. “The census was taken almost on the heels of that,” he said.

Up until 2000, the census showed Grand Forks’ population grew at least 12 percent each decade going back to 1890.

The departure of flying tankers from the air base also reduced the population right before the 2010 census. The last tanker departed in December 2010.

From 2000 to 2010, the air base’s population decreased 51 percent to 2,367. Many base personnel and their families also settled in Grand Forks, though census results do not show how many.

Even with the loss of Air Force families, Grand Forks saw a 7 percent population increase during the same timeframe to 52,838. The Census Bureau estimates the city’s 2011 population as 52,631, a 0.4 percent decrease from 2010.

The city has some options in remedying part of its census troubles.

The only way to actually change the 2010 census — which involves counting the city’s population, as opposed to estimating it — is something called a “geocode challenge,” city staff reported. This means looking for people who lives within city limits but entered the wrong location code making it appeared they lived outside the city.

City staff reported that the local Metropolitan Planning Organization has found 37 people with incorrect codes who could be added to the city population. It’s a small number, staff said, but the error could be compounded in future population estimates.

The 2010 census is key because the funding formulas of some federal agencies are based only on decennial censuses, not Census Bureau population estimates, city staff said.

Another option for the city is to have a recount of its population in a special census.

Hoover said the city must weigh the additional federal funding it might receive with a new count against the cost of a special census.

The question is how many funding formulas would be affected by such a recount, which would not affect the 2010 census results. City leaders considered a recount in 2004, but ended up not paying for one.

Cities that have conducted special censuses have seen costs exceeding $100,000. Macomb, Ill., a city of 19,000, spent about $150,000 on a special census in 2000, for example.

While waiting for a cost estimate from the Census Bureau, city staff will find out how much in federal funding the city stands to gain.

Gershman said in a meeting with staff that he was told Grand Forks receives about $1,000 per person per year in federal funding. “If, in fact, it was to cost us $100,000 and we found 50 people, in two years we have recouped that money.”

A third option is to challenge the Census Bureau’s population estimate.

The next one is due out later this month, and the city would have 90 days file a challenge.

In years past, the city has clashed with the Census over estimates, in part, because of differing methodology. The Census uses administrative records, such as tax returns, while the city looks at the number of housing units and vacancy rates.