When officials in Chester, Georgia learned that the 2020 census pegged their small town at 525, their jaws dropped. They thought the city was almost triple that size and worried that an inaccurate number would force them to make budget cuts.
“I said, ‘Whoa, that’s not true,'” City Clerk Melanie McCook said. “The first thing I thought was, ‘This is going to greatly affect our income.'”
Chester and two other small rural municipalities in Georgia are the first communities in the United States to challenge the accuracy of their counts from the once-a-decade count. Successful challenges are rare, but the outcome could determine whether Chester, the city of Glennville and White County get their fair share when it comes to distributing $1.5 trillion in annual federal funding.
In the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, White County officials were stunned when the 2020 census reported the county had a population of 28,003. A 2019 Census Bureau estimate had put the county’s population at 30,798. The county is home to the town of Helen, a tourist attraction modeled after a Bavarian Alpine village.
An analysis by the Georgia Mountains Regional Commission, a nonprofit agency that provides planning assistance to area communities, said half of the county’s census blocks had incorrect housing counts. Although the 2020 census put the number of dwellings at 13,535, it should have been 15,286, according to the analysis.
“We are concerned about the long-term impacts, not being eligible for grants, not getting as many dollars as needed for our schools, those kinds of opportunities that arise when the census count is used” said White County Community Manager John Sell. and economic development.
Glennville and Chester are home to state prisons, which have become one of the hardest places to count – as well as college dorms, nursing homes and military barracks – as the coronavirus spread across the United States during crucial weeks for the spring 2020 census. Students were sent home from campuses, and prisons and nursing homes were closed while these residents were supposed to be counted.
In Georgia, inmates are supposed to be counted where they are imprisoned. A dozen other states are considering counting prisoners at home when it comes to drawing political constituencies.
Because of the challenges pandemic closures pose to these “group dwelling” counts, the Census Bureau has proposed creating a separate program accept challenges for dormitories, military barracks, nursing homes and prisons. Local authorities in Georgia are not waiting.
In Glennville, where more than a third of the population is black, the 2020 census counted 3,834 people. Estimates for 2019 indicated there were 5,066 people, and Glennville officials say the 2020 number should be higher than 5,300 residents because they believe the approximately 1,500 inmates at Smith State Prison n were not counted.
“It’s not that they did anything wrong. It was just an oversight. You had to consider that we had COVID and people weren’t allowed in or out,” Glennville City Manager Stan Dansby said of the jail.
A combination of the pandemic and a lack of reliable broadband to complete the census questionnaire online may have led to discrepancies in counts in rural Georgia, said Heather Feldman, executive director of the Georgia Mountains Regional Commission.
“Unlike many parts of the country, Georgia was experiencing extremely high cases of COVID-19,” Feldman said in an email. “Unlike densely populated metropolitan areas, door-to-door census counters may not have gone to harder-to-reach areas of rural counties.”
The scope of appeals allowed by the Census Bureau is narrow – mistakes in registering boundaries or dwellings ignored when processing data. Revisions to population and housing totals were made to about 1% of the nation’s 39,000 governments after the 2010 census. Census challenges won’t change the number of congressional seats each state gets or the numbers used to redraw political constituencies.
Other communities have signaled they plan to challenge their census counts, including several college towns and the cities of Boston. and Detroit.
In the case of Chester, halfway between Atlanta and Savannah, the 2020 census indicated that there were just 525 people, which would mark a 67% drop in population over the decade if c was true. The 2019 American Community Survey pegged the majority-black city’s population at 2,102, and city officials estimate it has at least 1,500 residents.
Chester officials believe the count missed not only inmates at Dodge State Prison, but also residents of homes in the city.
Without a large property tax base or many business taxes, Chester relies on a state-run program in which counties share sales taxes with cities as well as a tax on insurance premiums. Both sources of income are tied to Chester’s population, which spends about $350,000 a year on its operations but struggles to accommodate the lower-than-expected numbers even as it seeks adjustment.
“It was a budget nightmare for me. I have no idea when it will be fixed,” said Chester City Clerk McCook. “We are sort of, at the moment, only spending money only for necessities, things that you absolutely must have. We hope this will be resolved before we have to make major budget cuts.”
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