Nearly a decade ago, a growing Garden City entered into a years-long challenge process with the United State Census Bureau, arguing that the agency had miscounted the city’s population by thousands.

Today, with doubled-down efforts, area census jobs and an expanding group of representatives from the city’s institutions and communities, local leaders are fully focused on one goal: ensuring a miscount doesn’t happen again.

'Shouldn't it be right?'

City staff is still not entirely sure how or why census counters seemed to miss so many residents, said city manager Matt Allen, though the error was not a mathematical one. Garden City was short on available housing in 2010, potentially even more so than it is today, and at the time most residences were full, he said. Regardless, census counters marked entire city blocks as unoccupied.

“It’s unexplainable to me … ” Allen said. “It makes no sense. I don’t think anybody who lives in Finney County — frankly, anybody that lives in southwest Kansas — could say that East Garden Village was only remotely occupied or that The Trails apartment complex was only remotely occupied or entire blocks of single-family residential homes were mostly unoccupied. In 2010, everybody that was here then knows that that is unrealistic.”

In July 2011, the city submitted its first challenge to the Census Bureau’s Count Question Resolution Program, claiming that bureau counters had undercounted the amount of residents in 51 Garden City blocks. In response, the bureau upped the town’s population by seven people, according to a city memo.

In response, city staff dug deeper, ultimately identifying 134 blocks within city limits that had count anomalies, or 318 housing units that were not counted by the census, according to the memo. After the second challenge, the census resolution program confirmed changes to 28 of those blocks, leaving 106 unaddressed, according to the memo.

The count falls about 3,500 people short of the population city staff determined, Allen said. During the initial count, he suspects the original counters must have artificially filled in the missing blocks, potentially the result of a lack of effort.

Census data directly impacts communities. Population counts sometimes factor into grant funding applications, and census data is used to determine how many representatives a state will be granted in the U.S. House of Representatives or where district lines will be drawn. For every miscounted household, the League of Kansas Municipalities estimates a community could potentially lose upwards of $5,246 a year.

Allen said he doubts that Garden City has suffered monetary losses that large, but, regardless, he’s adamant that the mistakes should not be repeated.

“Shouldn’t it be right?” Allen said. “I mean it’s not like a game of who can get more poker chips. This is something done every 10 years with the expectation that the number will be right. Everything else that counts on it assumes that that number is right … But if the number might be plus or minus 15%, does it even matter?”

A complete count

To get it right, staff members have formed the Garden City Complete Count Committee, the local faction of a nationwide effort to produce better census results.

Headed by Garden City planner Melissa Dougherty-O'Hara, the committee will bring together representatives from Garden City, Finney County and Holcomb staffs, educators and school administrators, faith leader, health care workers, nonprofit heads, local library and economic development staff and business leaders to educate and encourage residents to take part in the census, Dougherty-O'Hara said.

The committee kicked off its efforts July 25 with a meeting with Census Bureau representatives.

The goal is that a diverse group of local leaders will be able to give all residents a safe person to turn to with questions or concerns, Dougherty-O'Hara said. Over the next year, they’ll lead an education, and then an awareness, campaign, using social media, town halls and visits to different groups to increase the understanding of the need to respond to the census, she said.

A priority is to reach traditionally hard-to-count populations, including millennials, renters, immigrants, people experiencing homelessness and children under 5 years old, Dougherty-O'Hara said.

The effort isn’t a new one, Allen said, but an expanded one, building off what was in place in 2010. And it’s not the only thing that could help fight bureau miscounts. The Census Bureau is accepting applications now for temporary positions as census takers, recruiting assistants, office staff and supervisory staff.

Doughtery-O’Hara said the census matters to a small, growing community like Garden City. The data is used by businesses considering opening a location in the city, schools and municipalities planning for future programs or services and nonprofits applying for grant funding. It’s open to everyday citizens wanting to know more about their communities.

“It’s amazing how many aspects of our lives census data could potentially be used for … Census data is a great tool for us to use to figure out strategies of how we’re going to address serious issues or concerns within our community,” Doughtery-O’Hara said.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Garden City Complete Count Committee, call the Garden City Neighborhood and Development Services Office at 620-276-1170

Contact Amber Friend at afriend@gctelegram.com.