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Local governments push broad response to census

Jim Thompson
jthompson@nwfdailynews.com
Northwest Florida Daily News

DeFUNIAK SPRINGS — Five minutes. 10 years.

That’s the math for the 2020 Census; the time it takes to fill out the simple census form, and the time over which communities will have to deal with the consequences of the every-10-years count of the nation’s population.

Those consequences can be serious, affecting everything from the level of representation that communities will have in their state legislatures and in Congress as legislative district lines are redrawn to reflect population changes, and the amount of state and federal dollars that flow into counties and cities and their school systems to augment local tax revenue.

With those consequences looming, officials in Walton County are redoubling their efforts to get people to fill out the census form. Currently, just 30.3 percent of the forms sent to addresses across the county have been completed and sent in, according to county officials, leaving Walton County 63rd among the state’s 67 counties in census response rates through June 2, the latest figures available. .

The numbers are a little better in Okaloosa County, where 56.2 percent of forms have been sent in, according to county officials, putting the county in 31st place thus far among the state’s 67 counties. But officials are continuing to remind residents of the need to fill out the form, according to Christopher Saul, the county’s public information officer.

“It has plenty of implications for us,” said Saul, noting in particular the tie between the census and the amount of federal and state funds coming to the county. “We’re always keeping an eye on our finances.”

Since 2010, Census Bureau data has projected significant population increases for both Okaloosa and Walton counties.

The official population of Okaloosa County in 2010 was 180,822, but by the time of the Census Bureau’s 2018 American Community Survey, that number had risen to 200,737, and a 2019 estimate puts the county’s population at 210,738. That’s an increase of 16.5 percent since 2010.

Walton County’s official 2010 population was 55,043, a number that had climbed to 71,375 by the 2018 American Community Survey. The Census Bureau’s population estimate for Walton County in 2019 was 74,071, a nearly 35 percent increase over 2010.

Given that population increase of nearly 20,000 people —which official census numbers from this year’s tally could push even higher — it’s understandable that Walton County officials want to ensure every county resident is counted.

“We expect at least that (projected 20,000 increase),” said Walton County Board of County Commissioners Chairman Bill Chapman.

“If we can’t back those numbers up, it puts us at a severe disadvantage,” said Walton County District 2 Commissioner Danny Glidewell.

For his part, Chapman lays part of the blame for the low census response rate in Walton County on the emergence of COVID-19.

In March, a couple of weeks before census forms were made widely available, Chapman and his commission colleagues took tough steps aimed at slowing the spread of the disease — including closing the county’s beaches for a time, which had a direct effect on the livelihoods of many county residents.

“People were trying to keep their businesses open, and take care of their families,” Chapman said, which pushed any thoughts of completing a government form outside of their more immediate concerns.

Now, in an effort to boost census response numbers, Walton County is going far beyond the use of its social media channels to get the word out.

County officials have asked local utilities and other service providers to insert notices in monthly bills to promote filling out the census form; they’ve reached out to local media; they’re sending emails to county employees, and they’re urging local businesses to do the same, according to Commissioner Danny Glidewell.

Additionally, according to Walton County Public Information Manager Louis Svehla, local nonprofits are working with their clients to ensure that census forms are being filled out, and people also are being steered to county libraries, which offer access to computers for online completion of census forms.

“We’re doing as much as we possibly can,” said Glidewell. “There’s a lot of money at stake, that could help a lot of people.”

Some of that money at stake is in the form of property taxes, Glidewell noted. Walton County has managed to keep its property taxes relatively constant, and relatively low, according to Glidewell, but any federal or state funding based on artificially low population numbers could force property tax rates up, he said.

Also, according to Svehla, census numbers can have implications beyond the immediate concerns of funding government.

As just one example, Svehla pointed out that the numbers have a direct effect on economic development, insofar as they provide businesses looking to expand into a given area an idea of what the local workforce is like, and also provide information on the strength of the local market for their goods and services.

On the federal level, census officials are working now with facilities that house large groups of people, from senior citizen centers to prisons, to ensure that everyone is counted in the 2020 census. That work is scheduled to conclude in the middle of this month.

In August, census-takers will begin wrapping up their work. Through Oct. 31, they’ll be visiting homes that haven’t responded to the census.

“We want it to be the best it can be,” Glidewell said of the census count in Walton County. “From representation to funding, that’s very important.”

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