Mick Ireland knows Pitkin County’s streets. The former Aspen mayor and 30-year politico has knocked on thousands of his neighbors’ doors over the years, promoting candidates and ballot issues as well as helping to register voters.
So when the 2020 census report showed entire blocks in Pitkin County — not city blocks but the small geographic areas that the U.S. Census Bureau breaks the country into — with populations of zero, he took note. Using the county’s geographic information system – GIS – mapping, he started finding more blocks across the county that appear to have been missed by the 2020 census. In some blocks the census counted fewer homes despite new construction.
“I know those buildings simply didn’t disappear. My estimate is that about 1,000 people were not counted,” said Ireland, who is working with county leaders to assemble a detailed list that could become a formal challenge to the 2020 census count.
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More counties are doing the same. After census takers struggled to count every U.S. resident in their place during the chaotic pandemic, more counties in Colorado are finding discrepancies with the tally that will determine how many federal dollars flow into communities. (The 2010 census showed that 316 federal spending programs relied on the 2010 count to distribute about $1.5 trillion in annual spending. Colorado gets about $19.2 billion a year in census-guided funds, which amounts to about $3,500 per resident.)
So a count that comes up 1,000 short in Pitkin County, could cost the county $35 million over the next decade.
“This is a large amount of money we are talking about,” Ireland said.
Elizabeth Garner, Colorado’s state demographer, has been working with Pitkin County as it researches potential undercounts of housing units. She’s also been talking with Eagle County officials about possible problems.
To challenge a census count, a municipality must have an issue with either the boundary of a census tract or the bureau’s count of housing units. Most of the issues Garner has been hearing about deal with the count of homes. She said her department is tracking a missing apartment complex in Lamar, an overlooked apartment building in Brush, an overcount of homes in Longmont and a possible undercount in Buena Vista.
In the past decade, the only problems with the census count in Colorado involved prison populations, Garner said.
“Yes, 2020 was a difficult year in general and horrible for the census. Besides COVID there were issues with politics and natural disasters,” Garner said, noting how the pandemic delay of the Census Bureau’s final data collection — the non-response follow-up operation to count households that have not responded to census requests — “visibly impacted the data, especially in rural areas.”
The 2020 census showed 17,358 people in Pitkin County, 210 more residents than in 2010. The 2020 count shows Pitkin County with 14,232 housing units, up 1,744 homes from 2010. And the census estimated that Pitkin County’s population fell by 10 residents from 2020 to 2021, which defies a near unanimous sentiment that the Roaring Fork Valley has been exceptionally busy during the pandemic.
Another head scratcher: the town of Carbondale grew to 6,434 residents in 2020. That’s a seven-person jump from 2010. Census housing surveys show Carbondale added 168 housing units — to reach 2,594 homes — between 2010 and 2020.
“Seven people? That is just not possible,” Ireland said.
The most recent census report also shows Summit County’s population declining by 114 residents between 2020 and 2021, which does not jibe with on-the-ground perspectives that more residents are occupying homes in the resort destinations. Ditto for San Miguel County, home to Telluride, which saw its population climb by two residents between 2020 and 2021. (San Miguel County’s population in 2020 was 8,072, up 713 people from 2010.)
The Census Bureau began accepting challenges to its 2020 count earlier this year and the Census Count Question Resolution Program will take state and local challenges through June 2023.
The Census Bureau’s list of accepted challenges to its annual population estimates is short, with only 18 revised population estimates between 2012 and 2017, the last year it has reported accepted challenges. In 2009, the bureau revised population estimation counts for Boulder and Colorado Springs. But for the 2010 census, the bureau did not report any challenges from Colorado communities that resulted in a revised population count.
Abby Dallmann, the special projects manager for Eagle County who helped guide the 2020 census process, is analyzing the census count against the county’s GIS data. The census block system does not overlap easily with the county records that divide everything into parcels.
And what she’s hearing from residents and business owners in the county seems to conflict with census data showing a 7% growth in population and 8% growth in housing between 2010 and 2020.
And most interestingly, the census tracked a decline of four residents in Eagle County between 2020 and 2021.
“Anecdotally, everyone in the Roaring Fork Valley and the Eagle River Valley is saying it’s more crowded,” Dallmann said. “But are those folks here for a week, a month or are they here full time now?”
There’s the larger narrative in the high country right now that more people than ever before are buying homes and relocating to mountain communities. But the census data does not reflect a deluge of newcomers.
“It certainly rubs you the wrong way when it’s a census that only happens every 10 years and for a variety of reasons, it doesn’t feel right,” said Dallmann, who hopes for an overhaul of the census-taking process for 2030. “We want to make sure we do our analysis very carefully and properly. We are knee-deep in figuring out how best to do that. We have time.”
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