The city of Flagstaff and Coconino County are more involved in preparations for the 2020 census than ever before.
Both local governments have already invested a combined $150,000 with plans to invest another $150,000 during the next budget cycle.
That money equates to about $2 per person based on the number of people they expect to count during a census that is seeing less investment from the federal government, with Congress initially limiting the budget of the 2020 census to that of the 2010 census.
The lack of federal funding toward a complete count was a big influence when city and county officials decided they should work together and invest money in the 2020 count, said County Director of Special Initiatives Kim Musselman.
“This is the first time we’ve made a true, concerted effort to do this together,” Musselman said. “[The lack of funding was of] huge importance toward us deciding that the city and county needed to make this a financial investment as well, because we have been told that the resources aren’t going to be there.”
That investment may have a real financial return when it comes to money coming into Flagstaff and the county, said Sara Dechter, the city’s comprehensive planning manager. For every person counted, Dechter said they estimate about $1,900 coming back into the community.
That doesn’t mean the city or county gets all that money, but population numbers provided by the census help determine the amount of money received by everything from school districts and affordable housing programs to Medicare and Social Security recipients, Dechter said.
Even the amount of money put toward road repair and new roads by the Arizona Department of Transportation is influenced by the census, Mussleman said.
And all of that is on top of the potential changes in representation. Arizona is expected to gain a 10th congressional seat after the next count.
It’s because of all this that city and county staff have been working to prepare for the count, even before the majority of federal census workers have been hired, Dechter said. Most of that work has been to ensure that the data sets and maps federal census workers use are as up-to-date as possible.
“Lines on a map seem really simple, but they really can matter,” Dechter said.
For example, Dechter said they have found some of the maps census workers are using hadn’t been updated since 1990.
“That’s how we found there was a dorm built in 1995 that still had a census block line running through the middle of it,” Dechter said. “So that means there was new construction in the mid-'90s that never got updated and passed on to the census.”
Mistakes like that can have real consequences on the ground, but can only be fixed by someone with local knowledge of an area.
Case in point: community development block grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Money from block grants comes with requirements that it be used in low-income neighborhoods and communities with a higher percentage of minorities living in the area, all based on census data.
One example of such a neighborhood in Flagstaff is La Plaza Vieja.
Dechter said they found that the census section line ran along the railroad tracks. That makes sense if you look at a map of the city, but on the ground, the two blocks to the north of the railroad tracks in that area are demographically more similar to the rest of La Plaza Vieja and have far less in common with the Townsite Neighborhood to the north.
But because of how the census lines are drawn, those living in the two blocks of La Plaza Vieja north of the tracks are not able to get the same federal resources as the rest of the neighborhood.
These kinds of mistakes can make it more difficult for businesses trying to conduct market research, researchers at universities and think tanks, and even local and state agencies and nonprofits.
“You ask somebody who is a geographer in Dallas to try and figure out how we're going to count all the people in Flagstaff,” Dechter said. “The census is really reliant on the communities to advocate for ourselves for our complete count and give the on-the-ground knowledge that the federal staff need.”
The city and county were able to provide a set of changes and updates to the maps and data sets census workers will use already, and there will be another opportunity to make corrections at the end of 2019.
All the work staff are doing before the count begins makes an undercount less likely, Dechter said, adding that they believe both the city and county have lost funding because of undercounts before.
The city appealed the count in 2000 and they believe there was an undercount in 2010 as well, Dechter said. One of the ways they know this is by looking at the estimates of population growth from the state demographer and comparing that to the census’s estimates.
After the 2010 census, Dechter said staff saw that the estimates were getting a little far apart -- in the end, there was a 900-person difference in the two counts, which is substantial.