County discusses program to help produce accurate Census count

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A new program from the U.S. Census Bureau could help Cortland County produce a more accurate population count than the one reported after the 2020 Census.

County legislators Thursday discussed potentially entering the 2020 Post-Census Group Quarters Review (PCGQR), a program put on by the U.S. Census Bureau to allow public entities to submit a case indicating there has been an undercount of populations living in group quarters. 

Group quarters, according to the Census Bureau, include places such as college and university student housing, nursing and skilled nursing facilities and correctional facilities. The bureau is putting on this program due to the presented difficulties to the survey that were ushered in by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“When the pandemic began in 2020, many colleges and universities, for example, closed dormitories and sent students home to learn virtually right before (the) April 1 (Census deadline),” according to a post on the Census Bureau website. “Changes in living arrangements made counting people where they lived on Census Day — and in the right place according to the Census Bureau’s residence criteria — difficult, especially since schools remained virtual throughout the data collection period.”

Public entities, such as Cortland County, can submit a review request anytime between now and June 30 next year.

Census data from 2020 indicates there has been a 5.1 percent decline in population across the county since 2010. The official count for Cortland County is currently 46,809 according to the most recent Census.

“My recollection is that we can do this, but beware that this is a lengthy and comprehensive process,” said legislator Cathy Bischoff (D-LD-3) during Tuesday’s Agriculture, Planning, and Environmental Committee meeting.

Appropriate documentation to submit for a potential review, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, includes rosters and source materials. It also includes details about the group quarters count discrepancy to assist the Census Bureau with its research of the local government’s case.

Submissions can be sent electronically to the Census Bureau’s Secure Web Incoming Module (SWIM). If governments cannot use SWIM, the bureau stated in a press release, materials can be submitted through postal mail. Instructions on submission materials can be accessed on the 2020 PCGQR webpage.

The Census Bureau will only accept cases from the highest elected or appointed official. In Cortland County’s case, Legislative Minority Leader Beau Harbin (D-LD-2) said it would be Legislature chair Kevin Fitch (R-LD8),or County administrator Rob Corpora.

County planning director Trisha Jesset said other local governments have called for a program like this at meetings with Census Bureau officials.

“It seems like every conference I went to, there was a consistent comment from a lot of people attending that they strongly felt the counts were incorrect,” Jesset said. 

Jesset noted that U.S. Census Bureaus have stated that the timeline to fix population counts is way ahead of any local redistricting process.

Harbin clarified that submitting a case review request would not be a general recount. 

“We have seen the numbers in areas of the city that have student housing where the numbers seem to be low,” Harbin said. “We have to provide evidence and get the (Bureau) to acknowledge our case.”

Census figures are typically used when federal officials look to distribute aid to municipalities. 

“This is about money too. If we have a low count, we are going to get less money,” said legislator Ronald VanDee (D-LD-4). “I am concerned about the income coming in.”

The case review request could also help have a more accurate count of incarcerated residents.

“(At a meeting with Bureau officials) I attended, three people spoke about incarcerated individuals as well,” Jesset said. She added that developers applying for grants may also benefit from a more accurate count.

The discussion on this particular item will continue in August. Harbin noted he would be looking into the census count further.