Cities appealing 2020 census count garner only small wins

FILE - The Milwaukee skyline is pictured on Sept. 6, 2022. For the cities and towns that have challenged their 2020 census population figures, claiming residents within their boundaries were overlooked during the nation's head count three years ago, victories have been mostly small in size. A dozen or so municipalities have had the results of their appeals made public by the U.S. Census Bureau. And even with just small gains of several hundred residents, cities like Milwaukee are taking what they can get. (AP Photo/Morry Gash, File)
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Associated Press

For the U.S. cities and towns that have challenged their 2020 census population figures, the victories have been mostly small. But small turned out to be big for tiny Whiteville, Tennessee.

Of the dozen or so municipalities that have appealed and had the results made public by the U.S. Census Bureau because they say residents were overlooked during the nation’s last headcount, the biggest gain so far has been 1,958 residents in Whiteville, which now has a revised population of 4,564 residents and could see a significant boost in the money it gets from the state and federal governments.

Even with just small increases of several hundred residents, cities like Milwaukee are taking what they can get. Wisconsin’s largest city recently gained more than 800 residents after it was discovered that inmates at one of the local jails were wrongly assigned to a neighboring city. That challenge was organized with other Wisconsin municipalities.

Milwaukee has another appeal still pending, claiming 16,500 residents were overlooked in houses and apartments primarily in communities of color. The 2020 census put Milwaukee at 577,222 residents, down about 3% from 2010.

“We will take the 817 people to start,” said Jeff Fleming, a spokesman for Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson. “We have to fight when they tell us we lost population.”

Milwaukee is among the largest U.S. cities to challenge their 2020 census numbers, along with Boston, Detroit and Austin, Texas. Those cases also are still pending and could produce larger revisions. About six dozen smaller cities, towns and villages have challenged their head count through two Census Bureau programs.

The statistical agency has posted the results for more than a dozen municipalities, with a gain of as few as four people in Cleveland, Georgia, where one additional home was added to the city’s boundaries. Kevin Harris, the city’s administrator, said the Census Bureau didn’t inform local officials where in the city of 3,518 the population gain occurred.

“We simply want an accurate number for our community since this involves the census count and access to resources since so many federal programs are based on population,” Harris said in an email on Friday.

A substantial number of revisions involved jails or prisons whose inmates were assigned to the wrong jurisdiction. Those facilities, along with college dorms, nursing homes and military barracks, were among the most difficult places to count as the coronavirus spread throughout the U.S. during crucial weeks for the census in the spring of 2020. Students were sent home from campuses, and prisons and nursing homes went into lockdowns when those residents were supposed to be counted.

Challenging the numbers was frustrating for some city officials, who say the Census Bureau didn’t consider nuances of particular cases.

In Kent, Ohio, officials weren’t worried about their overall count, but rather undercounts in specific wards, particularly in a neighborhood home to hundreds of Kent State University students who deserted their apartments once remote learning was imposed during the pandemic. The neighborhood saw a construction boom in the last decade.

After the appeal and revision, Kent lost 12 residents to neighboring Franklin township, and the Census Bureau didn’t address the city’s concerns, said Bridget Susel, Kent’s community development director.

“This doesn’t reflect the development we had. If you are going to count, let’s make sure we count the right number of units,” Susel said. “I found it to be disappointing.”

Nothing can be done to change how congressional seats were divided among the states, nor to alter the figures used to redraw political districts. But changes can be used for future population estimates that help determine how $1.5 trillion in federal spending is allocated. States, counties and cities have until this summer to file challenges.

Some municipalities have had cases resolved without the Census Bureau making the results public. Cases are resolved on on a “first come, first served” basis, the Census Bureau said in a statement Wednesday.

“The size and complexity of a case determines how quickly it moves through the process,” the bureau said.

For the town of Whiteville, Tennessee, a majority-Black community almost 60 miles (96 kilometers) northeast of Memphis, the population adjustment from 2,606 residents to 4,564 stemmed from inmates at a correctional facility being overlooked. The change means an extra $20,000 to $30,000 a month in population-based revenue from taxes the state collects and distributes. The money amounts to about 30% of the town’s budget.

The win wasn’t easy. City Recorder Angelous Simmons had to provide numbers on the prison’s population, document the geographic coordinates of the prison to show it was in the city’s boundaries and then follow-up with repeated phone calls and emails to the Census Bureau.

“That is a considerable part of our budget,” Simmons said. “So it was worth fighting for.”