Cost of federal census recounts push growing towns to do it themselves

Officials in the city of Lebanon worried that the amount of state money distributed from Tennessee agencies based on 2020 census figures wasn’t keeping pace with their explosive growth. So they reached out to the U.S. Census Bureau to ask about conducting another head count, or “special census,” for the city on the edge of metro Nashville.

But Lebanon officials balked at the $880,000 price tag and decided to do it themselves.

“We think we can do it cheaper,” said Paul Corder, planning director for Lebanon, which has a population of 44,000 residents.

Their census is rolling out later this summer. Officials hope to spend less than half the federal quote for a count that accurately captures Lebanon’s rapid growth, with a goal of bringing in just under $1 million extra each year in state funding through the end of the decade.

The bureau’s special head counts don’t change political maps, unlike the federal census every decade, but they can lead to more state and federal funding. Communities that request them, or conduct their own, have to decide whether the cost they’ll pay outweighs possible revenue gains, said Tim Kuhn, director of the Tennessee State Data Center.

The National Conference of State Legislatures said it doesn’t have data on how many states permit DIY censuses, but it’s more common in states that have procedures for them, including Tennessee. After the 2010 census, 54 communities in Tennessee conducted their own special censuses, with none seeking help from the Census Bureau.

Since the 2020 census, several Tennessee communities have pursued their own second counts, including La Vergne and Cumberland Gap, as have three communities in Washington state — Sumas, Toledo and Springdale.

In North Carolina, only municipalities with fewer than 500 residents can conduct DIY censuses. The resort town of Fontana Dam has 13 residents, according to the 2020 census, but local officials expect that to double or triple once their recount is approved. And in Seven Springs, a special census bumped the population from 55 to 69 residents.

Smaller communities like these probably won’t see a huge change in their state funds, said Michael Cline, North Carolina’s state demographer.

“But folks in these local communities usually know who is living in their community by name,” he said, “and want to get it right.”

Lebanon’s special census will ditch the federal practice of asking for demographic information and only count names of residents at each address. The city can also reach people where the census bureau can’t, like at Little League games, said Corder, the planning director.

DIY censuses can be useful for getting more funding but potentially problematic, with concerns over keeping information confidential and accurately counting residences like dorms and people who live in the state part-time like snowbirds, said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a consultant and a former congressional staffer who specializes in census issues.

The Census Bureau doesn’t track or provide support for communities that do their own censuses, it said in a statement to The Associated Press.

So far, only a single municipality, the Village of Pingree Grove in Illinois, has signed a contract for the Census Bureau to conduct a repeat head count following the 2020 census, at a cost of $373,000.

The village almost 50 miles (80 kilometers) northwest of Chicago grew by almost 6.5% to more than 11,000 residents in the two years after the 2020 census. The decade before, the population more than doubled.

Hundreds of new homes have been built in the village since the last census, and it’s planning to annex another 981 homes. Village officials want to account for that when it comes to federal and state funding.

“Things are just constantly moving here, and we want to make sure we capture all of that growth,” said Amber Kubiak, village president. “In the past decade when we were growing so rapidly, we waited and realized we should have done something about that sooner.”

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