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July 28, 2014

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Originally published: 2011-03-25 14:52:22
Last modified: 2011-03-25 15:01:11

Blowing Rock population undercounted in 2010 survey?

In a county whose population grew by almost 20 percent since the last census, it’s hard to believe that Blowing Rock’s population shrunk. In fact, some town officials don’t believe it.
Concerned by the effects that census data released earlier this month might have on revenue and the area’s image, Blowing Rock officials are now considering recounting the population at the town’s expense. The data shows that Blowing Rock’s population fell by 12.7 percent in town limits and by 5 percent in the entire township since 2000. The township includes the town itself and the surrounding area. The town’s population as of April 1, 2010, was 1,192 in town limits and 2,715 in the entire Blowing Rock township, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“I’m not accusing the census bureau of any improprieties, but it makes actually no sense to me that we’ve lost 200-and-some people,” Blowing Rock Town Council member Albert Yount said. “I don’t see any less people around here than I did. I think the town’s going to do a pretty in-depth count on its own.”


Could it be wrong?
Part of the surprise about the population comes from the fact that thecensus indicated an increase of 520 housing units in town limits during those 10 years.
But housing units do not necessarily equate to full-time residents, especially in a town with such a strong seasonal population.
Attorney and resident Toni di Santi has his suspicions about why the numbers seem “off” to some residents.
Near April 1 of last year, he discussed with his wife that they hadn’t yet received their census form. At the post office, she was informed that census rules prohibit delivery to post office boxes and that any forms sent there had been returned.
In Blowing Rock, the majority of residents receive their mail at the post office, and not at street-side mailboxes, di Santi said.
“We do not mail questionnaires to the post office boxes, because the key point is to count people in the right place where they live,” said Jess Avina, assistant regional census manager for the Charlotte region, which includes Watauga County.
In towns where street-side mail delivery is limited, local people are
hired to go door-to-door and drop off forms, Avina said.
In May, anyone who did not return a form gets a visit from a
census-taker, regardless of how they were originally sent the form, she
said.
The di Santis received a census-taker at their home, but Toni di Santi
said he isn’t convinced everyone else did.
“How many people in Blowing Rock did not, I think, is an issue and is
probably indicative of why Blowing Rock’s population appeared to have
declined,” di Santi said. “I personally have lived there for 36 years. I
don’t think it’s possible that our population declined.”
Di Santi sent a letter to the U.S. postmaster general and U.S. Sen. Kay
Hagan pointing out the perceived problem and the substantial cost of
sending a person to take the census rather than using the U.S. Postal
Service. He said he has not received a response.
But even within the town, there is disagreement about whether the
numbers could be skewed.
Mayor J.B. Lawrence is skeptical that anything was amiss with the census.
“I don’t know what I can say to put a finger on it,” Lawrence said. “A
lot of year-round residents may have sold their property in the last 10
years.”
He said that the smaller population would also indicate a shrinking
demand on town services, such as fire and medical assistance.
“I don’t know, it’s, all in all, a bad thing,” he said.
Why does it matter?
Beyond providing a snapshot of a community, the population figures
derived from the census dictate how much funding the town receives from
certain sources.
Blowing Rock receives about $350,000 to $400,000 in sales tax revenue on
a per-capita system from the county each year, and that figure would
decrease if the town population fell, Hildebran said.
The N.C. State Highway Fund and the Highway Trust Fund also allocate
money to towns for road construction, maintenance and repair through a
formula based on both the population and the miles of qualifying road.
In 2010, Blowing Rock received $18.80 per person based on its population
estimate of 1,489, or about $27,900 for its per-capita amount, although
more of its funding came from the per-mile calculation.
Exactly how much money Blowing Rock could lose, if any, is unclear at
this point, Hildebran said.
Then there’s the intangible hit to public perception.
“You don’t want to see an area that’s declining if you’re considering
moving to the mountains,” town council member Doug Matheson said.
“You’re wanting to look to go to a place that’s still thriving and
succeeding.”

What are the options?
In the last week, town officials began gathering the block-by-block numbers to look for any glaring errors before deciding how to proceed, Hildebran said.
The U.S. Census Bureau has a program, Count Question Resolution, that
allows elected officials to challenge the numbers for their region.
The bureau does not collect extra data or conduct more surveys during the process but simply reviews documentation by the officials and makes any necessary corrections. Three types of specific challenges are accepted, but a general concern about the numbers is not an acceptable challenge, Avina said.
The program will begin accepting challenges June 1.
Another process called, the “Special Census” will take place later in the decade, in which the census is redone from scratch for an area at that area’s expense, Avina said.
The Special Census is also a voluntary campaign not required by law.
“These are very expensive, and if the counts come out lower ... you have to stay with those counts until 2020,” Avina said.
If the town of Blowing Rock decided to request a Special Census, it would have to decide whether the cost of conducting it was worth the possible increase in revenue it could gain.
But at this point, no one is exactly sure whether the census figures are truly an issue for Blowing Rock.
“The census bureau could be exactly right, I don’t know,” Yount said.
“But we’re going to find out.”   
 
For more information and stories, see The Blowing Rocket.


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