Count shows nobody home at Census Bureau
October 3, 2008 · Updated 1:07 AM
I'd like to start this column with a Zen koan: If an enumerator with the U.S. Census Bureau fails to make it to Snoqualmie Ridge, does that mean no one lives there?
If that leaves you scratching your head, join the club. Ever since the Valley Record first reported that more than 700 Snoqualmie residents apparently weren't counted in the 2000 Census, I've been doing a lot of head scratching myself.
What happened last year as the federal government tabulated its nationwide population count is open for debate. It's possible census forms weren't sent to Snoqualmie Ridge because the development is relatively new - a theory backed by anecdotal reports of Ridge homeowners calling the Census Bureau to ask for forms because they hadn't received any and were beginning to worry.
It's also possible Snoqualmie Ridge residents were lumped in with some other group, possibly unincorporated King County.
Regardless of the reason, the results were the same. Snoqualmie estimates its current population at 2,345, but 2000 Census numbers released last month claim 1,631 people live within city limits. Compare that to the 1990 number, 1,546, and you get a 5.5 percent population increase over the past decade.
The real blow to the city comes in the form of funding. Snoqualmie receives a certain allotment of money based on its population, and a low count means less dollars to the city. On top of that, the funding shortage would continue until the population number is corrected.
Adding salt to the wound is the city's decision to conduct its own count. A new census will likely cost between $7,000 and $12,000, and Snoqualmie, with its conservative budget upon ending the shortfall period with Weyerhaeuser, will swallow hard when it comes time to pay the bill.
What's most outrageous about this debacle is not the miscount itself, but the fact that it occurred in the first place. Chandler Felt, a demographer with the King County Office of Regional Policy and Planning, said he specifically drew a circle around Snoqualmie Ridge on a map to alert the Census Bureau of the development, and other local and state officials gave repeated warnings, saying, in effect, "You need to look here."
What else did the bureau need, a pirate's map saying X marks the spot?
Even with the failed warnings, census workers should have realized something was wrong. Compare Snoqualmie's growth to other Valley cities. In 10 years, North Bend grew at 84 percent (a number that could change because of a possible overcount), Duvall at 66 percent, Carnation at 52 percent.
Snoqualmie at 5.5 percent? That discrepancy alone should have raised some red flags in the bureau's quality-control office.
Last week, I read with equal amounts of ire and amusement a quote by Theresa Lowe, chief demographer with the state Office of Financial Management, the agency that serves as a liaison between Washington state and the Census Bureau. She said in counting more than 281 million people across the country, the Census Bureau was bound to make some mistakes.
"But things are going to happen. It's a tremendous job," Lowe said of the census. "You have to realize that these numbers are scanned in, and the system is apt to have numbers scanned in wrong. House addresses aren't always what they should be for where they're located, and they could get credited to the other side of the street, which could be outside the city's boundaries."
Forgive me if I sound trite, but shouldn't we, as taxpayers, expect some level of accuracy after contributing billions of dollars to this program?
Yes, mistakes will be made. As with any type of poll there will be a margin of error. And while 714 out of 281 million people may not seem like much, try telling that to Gary Armstrong, Rhonda Montgomery, Shirley Leonard or the entire Snoqualmie City Council. They're the ones who have to figure out how to make nearly one-third of the city's population magically reappear, as well as determine how to pay for it.
But even if the city successfully completes a recount, it might not be good enough. The Census Bureau will not simply accept a new number, even if the city follows all the necessary rules in conducting a count, said Bob Rinaldi, a spokesman with the bureau. Cities that dispute their population totals must follow the agency's Count Question Resolution Program, a process that could take months, even years, to resolve.
That leads me to another Zen koan.
If the Census Bureau sees a map of Snoqualmie Ridge, will it own up to its mistake?
Barry Rochford is the editor of the Valley Record. You can reach him at 888-2311, or e-mail him at barry.rochford@