Special Censuses Pay off for Cities

Article excerpt

Byline: August Gribbin

Graf, Iowa, population 93, needed money to maintain its main street. So it did what the mayor calls "the common-sense thing." It asked for a special census, and got it.

Like hundreds of other U.S. counties and cities, Graf contracted with the Census Bureau to have its residents counted between national censuses. As in other towns, the special census raised Graf's official population count, generating cash for the city's coffers. So like many other communities, this town is expected to ask for yet another special census.

Graf is by far the smallest community to have a special census between regular "decennial," or 10-year censuses. Still, Graf's case illustrates the intimate tie between the census and money. It also shows how important an accurate population count is to communities large and small now that America's population is growing and shifting faster than ever.

Indeed, the demand has been increasing for special censuses - that is, for extraordinary head counts requested and paid for by towns, cities, counties or groups of local communities and then conducted by a small Census Bureau team.

Naperville, a city of 135,000 lying roughly 30 miles west of Chicago, "is now in the middle of suburbia," says Gary Karafiat, Naperville's manager of community relations. He says the city had a 53 percent growth rate between 1990 and 2000, and was the fastest growing in the state. It requested and got special censuses in 1992, 1994, 1996 and 1997.

"The amount of extra revenue we get from a special census varies each time. But I know that in 1997, the census cost us $100,000, and it meant that we received $800,000 of added revenue from taxes like the motor-fuel tax that are based on population," said Mr. Karafiat, who added that the 2000 population figures are already outdated.

Marvin Raines, the U.S. Census Bureau's associate director for field operations, reports the bureau performed 360 special censuses after the 1980 census and 437 after the 1990 head count. Now, bureau executives are weighing whether to phase out the program.

Tom Bredeweg, the executive director of Iowa's League of Cities, said, "We're astounded the Census Bureau would even think of eliminating the special census. Don't take it away."

However, Mr. Raines says the demand for the program is so obvious, it's likely to be continued.

As in the regular census, the count in this instance also is conducted using mailed questionnaires with follow-up visits to persons who don't respond. The questions asked in special censuses are generally the same as those on the short census form. They ask for a list of residents in each household and for each occupant's sex, age and race. Occasionally, questions are added to help a community in planning. This is done, for instance, when a city is debating the need for a light-rail transportation system and when officials want data about residents' travel patterns.

Graf's mayor, Howard Tyler, explains that as a result of its special census, Graf qualified for an additional share of state tax rebates and received enough money to fix Graf Road, the main thoroughfare, and repave Graf Court and Lola Lane, the city's two other thoroughfares. …