Can’t count on full Census participation

OBSERVER Photo Census information and brochures were displayed at the meeting to start a Complete Count Committee this week.

Six months from now, many residents here and throughout the United States of America will be participating in a process that occurs every 10 years: the 2020 Census. The exercise helps determine the number of seats per state in the House of Representatives and how some $675 billion in funding for major federal programs will be distributed.

Northern Chautauqua County is in a tough spot. Obviously, our population numbers have been on the downward spiral for nearly 40 years, losing some 18,000 residents countywide during that time span due to this region being a high-tax, hostile region toward business.

Most of that attitude is due to residents here choosing to pay for too many school districts and municipalities desperate for revenue to operate small-sized, high-cost entities. That being said, we are starting to learn from our past mistakes. We are working closer with private investors while doing a better job of holding tax rates.

But is the current residential number of 127,500 people in Chautauqua County accurate?

A meeting earlier this week at the LoGuidice Board of Cooperative Educational Services in Fredonia focused on making a plan — within the next 180 days — for dealing with having all those who are here participate in the count. Starting in January, according to Jason Eastman from the U.S. Census Bureau and one of the speakers at the event, Americans will begin to see and hear an awareness campaign. In March, residents will receive information on responding to the Census — either online or through the mail.

This is where it gets tricky.

For some living here, they see no value to taking part in the survey. That ultimately hurts the region, especially when it comes to bringing in a chunk of the federal funding that is doled out annually.

“We know that as a region we’ve seen population decline,” said Adam Dolce, executive director of the United Way of Northern Chautauqua County. “We know just from looking around our neighborhoods.

“We have a very hard to count population in northern Chautauqua County. We have an aging population. We have a population that has lots of migrants. … They are all populations that have traditionally been very difficult to count.”

Dolce and the United Way are in the early stages of creating a Complete Count Committee. At the meeting Monday, he called it “a first step.”

Judging by those attendance, which included school superintendents, municipal leaders, nonprofit agencies and some community members, there is an urgency to get this done. Many other communities facing troubles getting a response from residents are already reaching out to these sectors.

In Buffalo, a plan of action is already in motion due to its long history of plummeting numbers. This is the first Census since 1950 that city leaders are expecting to see a slight increase. Outreach is planned to the new immigrants who have come to the Queen City as well as continued efforts of working with schools there.

Dunkirk, however, is running out of time in trying to determine how to best attack the issue. Richard Morrisroe, city attorney, says the area needs a regional approach. As a bilingual attorney, he works with many who speak only Spanish. “Everybody assumes they’re Dunkirk residents,” he said. “Not all of them are.”

Those Spanish-speaking individuals, he said, are living in Fredonia, Portland, Cassadaga and Silver Creek. “It isn’t just a city issue,” he said. “It isn’t just a Fredonia. It’s a northern Chautauqua County issue.”

Morrisroe does believe the city may have seen an increase in population in recent years due to Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico in 2017. Some of those who left the island came to Dunkirk due to family ties.

“That’s going to maybe give us a little bump. How big of a bump? I don’t know,” Morrisroe said. “We’re not Orlando, which got a big bump, or Buffalo, which got a decent-sized bump. But we got a bump.”

Populations that often go uncounted, according to a map displayed by Eastman, include portions of the city, rural areas where there are large Amish communities and the students at the State University of New York at Fredonia.

Dolce is hoping to hear from others who want to be part of this committee for the Census. For those who missed the meeting earlier this week and want to help, they are welcome to call the United Way of Northern Chautauqua county at 366-5424.

“I think it’s important that we all work together,” Morrisroe said of the Complete Count effort. “Not only for the municipalities, but the nonprofits, because at the end of the day, we all benefit.

John D’Agostino is the OBSERVER publisher. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 366-3000, ext. 401.