‘Suspect’ Pitkin County census count could cost millions
With a response rate to the 2020 census survey below 40%, Pitkin County’s population appears to have been undercounted by at least 850 people, a local consultant said Wednesday.
If true, that discrepancy could cost the county more than $20 million over the next 10 years in state and federal funding for schools, health and human services and road maintenance, among other things, said Mick Ireland, who’s been hired to analyze the county Census data.
“That’s a significant loss,” said Ireland, a former Aspen mayor and Pitkin County commissioner. “And it’s revenue you don’t have to go out and collect. It’s sent to you.”
The suspected undercount came to light after 2020 census data released last month showed that Pitkin County’s population between 2010 and 2020 increased by only 1.2%, from 17,148 to 17,358. The increase of 210 people did not seem plausible, Ireland said.
“I thought it was suspiciously low,” he said. “It was suspect.”
Mary Lackner, Pitkin County’s geographic information system director, also said the small increase raised eyebrows.
“The key takeaway was, ‘Is this a problem?’” Lackner told county commissioners Tuesday. “Is this an undercount? What’s going on?”
Pitkin County’s population growth was nearly 400 people fewer than state demographers said it would be in 2019, when they estimated the number of residents would reach 17,756, Kara Silbernagel, the county’s policy and project manager, told commissioners last month.
Preliminary analysis of the geographical census blocks of data within the county indicates that some areas with known populations came in with “zero counts” of residents, others with affordable housing blocks came back with “extreme undercounts,” while two predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods “appear to have been undercounted,” Lackner said Tuesday during the commissioners’ regular weekly work session.
“There’s certainly some errors or undercounts in the initial analysis of Census block data,” she said.
The areas that came back with zero residents include the Tennis Club Subdivision across Highway 82 from Truscott with 29 units, 112 housing units at the base of Tiehack, and housing on Buttermilk Mountain all the way over to Owl Creek Road, according to Ireland and Lackner. The Census missed 323 people just from those areas, Ireland said.
“Those units have not left,” Ireland said. “They’re not gone. Some people may have left for COVID, but they didn’t take their home with them.”
Extreme undercounts appear to have occurred at Aspen Village, where the Census population declined to 171 residents in 2020 from 329 in 2010, and at 76 ownership units at the Hunter Creek Condominiums, where the number of residents in those units declined to 67 people in 2020 from 111 in 2010, Lackner said.
Ireland said the Hunter Creek units were all in buildings five, six, seven and eight — which are mainly affordable housing — while he estimated at least 150 people were likely missing from the Aspen Village total.
Another undercounted area was likely the 48 affordable housing units at the Maroon Creek Club, he said.
Finally, two blocks in the Lazy Glen Mobile Home Park appear to have been undercounted, with one falling from 200 to 135 residents between 2010 and 2020 and another declining from 225 to 163 in the same time period, Lackner said. Because the neighborhood is predominantly Hispanic, Ireland said he thinks some residents didn’t return surveys because of the Trump administration’s stance on immigration and residents’ fear they’d be deported if they filled out the survey.
Though he’s not yet done checking all the 4,000 blocks of census data for Pitkin County, Ireland said Wednesday that his latest analysis indicates an undercount of about 850 people. The analysis not only took into account numbers from the 2010 census, but also cross-referenced voter data to come up with the missed population estimates, he said.
“If there’s a lot of voters and not many people, you know something’s wrong,” Ireland said.
In 2010, Ireland said he estimated that Pitkin County’s population was undercounted by about 200 residents.
The federal government says that each resident is worth $2,400 a year, which works out to $20.4 million in lost revenue over 10 years if 850 people were missed, he said.
“That’s a lot of revenue,” Ireland said, particularly when Pitkin County’s operating budget was about $31.5 million this year.
Part of the reason for the suspected undercount is that Pitkin County had a “very low” response rate of 39.7% to the Census survey, Lackner said.
Ireland agreed that was likely a factor.
“If people don’t respond, you can’t count them,” he said.
However, in addition to the intimidation of Hispanics by the Trump Administration, Ireland said he also suspects data entry might be to blame for the suspected undercounts, especially in the zero-count areas.
Ireland’s contract with the city and county will include an analysis of all the census blocks in Pitkin County, including Aspen, Snowmass Village and Basalt, Lackner said. He said he expects to be done with the analysis by the end of October.
Still, while identifying the problem areas and undercounts appears possible, it’s unclear how much difference it will make in the end.
That’s because the federal government’s process for correcting census errors remains opaque, Lackner said. The process doesn’t even open until December, though the government wouldn’t release any changes to the census numbers until September 2023.
“We also don’t know what that means,” Lackner told commissioners Tuesday. “Do they revise (population numbers) based on the challenge being made, or do they just recognize a challenge is being made?”
Ireland said he’s asked Colorado Attorney General Philip Weiser and Sen. Michael Bennet about the process and they’ve said they’ll look into it.
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A more than $2 million expansion of the Pitkin County Landfill slated to add between six and eight years of life to the facility, which is rapidly running out of room, is nearly complete.