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Georgia cities are leading census appeals

When officials in Chester, Georgia, heard that the 2020 census had set their small town at 525 people, their jaws dropped. They thought the city was almost three times as big and feared that an inaccurate number could force them to make budget cuts.

“I said, ‘Hey, that’s not right,’ said Mayor Melanie McCook.” The first thing I thought was, ‘This is going to affect our revenue greatly.’ “

Chester and two other small rural municipalities in Georgia are the first communities in the United States to challenge the accuracy of their numbers from the number of people going once a year. Successful challenges are few, but the outcome may determine whether Chester, Glennville, and White County get their fair share when it comes to the $ 1.5 trillion in annual federal funding.

At the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, White County officials were stunned when the 2020 census said the county had 28,003 residents. A Census Bureau estimate from 2019 had set the county’s population at 30,798. The county is home to the town of Helen, a model tourist attraction in a Bavarian alpine village.

An analysis by the Georgia Mountains Regional Commission, a nonprofit agency that provides planning assistance to local communities in the region, said half of the county’s census blocks had incorrect housing counts. Although the census in 2020 set the number of dwellings at 13,535, according to the analysis, it should have been 15,286.

“We are concerned about the long-term consequences, of not qualifying for grants, of not getting as many dollars as we need for our schools, the kind of opportunities that come when the census is used,” said John Sell, director of White County Society and Economic Development.

Both Glennville and Chester are home to state prisons, which became among the most difficult places to count – along with dormitories, nursing homes and military barracks – as the coronavirus spread across the United States during crucial weeks of the spring 2020 census. Students were sent home from campuses, and prisons and nursing homes went into blockade as these residents had to be counted.

In Georgia, prisoners are supposed to be counted where they are incarcerated. About a dozen other states plan to count prisoners at their home addresses when it comes to drawing political districts.

Because of the challenges posed by pandemic closure for these “group neighborhoods,” the Census Bureau has proposed setting up a separate program to accept challenges for dormitories, military barracks, nursing homes, and prisons. Georgia’s local officials are not waiting around.

In Glennville, where more than a third of the population is black, the 2020 census counted 3,834 people. The 2019 estimates said there were 5,066 people, and Glennville officials say the 2020s should be more than 5,300 residents because they believe the approximately 1,500 inmates in the Smith State Prison were not counted.

‘It is not that they have done anything wrong. It was just an oversight. You had to take into account that we had COVID and people were not allowed in or out, “Stan Dansby, Glennville’s mayor, said of the jail.

A combination of the pandemic and the lack of reliable broadband to complete the online census questionnaire may have led to inconsistencies in rural Georgia censuses, said Heather Feldman, executive director of the Georgia Mountains Regional Commission.

“Unlike many areas of the country, Georgia saw extremely high cases of COVID-19,” Feldman said in an email. “Unlike the metro areas where the population is dense, door-to-door censuses may not have become more difficult to reach in rural areas.”

The scope of complaints allowed by the Census Bureau is narrow – errors in registering boundaries or homes skipped during data processing. After the 2010 census, revisions of population and housing figures were made to about 1% of the country’s 39,000 governments. The census challenges will not change the number of congressional seats each state gets or the numbers used to redraw political districts.

Other communities have signaled that they plan to challenge their census numbers, including several university cities and the cities of Boston and Detroit.

In the case of Chester, about halfway between Atlanta and Savannah, the 2020 census said it had only 525 people, which would mark a 67% drop in population over the decade, if true. The 2019 American Community Survey determined the majority of the black city’s population to be 2,102 inhabitants, and city officials believe it has a minimum of 1,500 inhabitants.

Chester officials believe the main count missed not only inmates of the Dodge State Prison, but also residents of the city’s homes.

Without a large property tax base or a lot of business taxes, Chester is dependent on a state-run program where counties share sales taxes with cities as well as a tax on insurance premiums. Both sources of income are linked to the people of Chester, who spend about $ 350,000 a year on their activities, but who are struggling to adapt to the lower-than-expected number, even though they are seeking an adjustment.

“It was a budget nightmare for me. I have no idea when this will be rectified,” said McCook, Chester’s mayor, “so far we are only spending money on necessities, things you absolutely must have. We hope that it will be resolved before we have to make major budget cuts. “


Follow Mike Schneider on Twitter at https://twitter.com/MikeSchneiderAP

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