Local officials concerned census count short

By Kevin Wilson: CNJ staff writer

Local officials are pretty sure when it comes to the U.S. Census estimates, they’re not being fully counted.

Estimates released July 1 from the U.S. Census show a 2.5 percent decrease in the population of Clovis from an estimate of July 1, 2007 (33,177) to July 1, 2008 (32,352).

Over that same period, Portales dropped from 12,318 to 12,215.

The census does an official count every 10 years and the next count — 2010 — is coming up.

But in off years, census demographer Greg Harper said a combination of administrative records are used to estimate.

Harper said records counted include building records, birth and death data and tax return information to track citizen migration.

In 2000, Clovis had a population estimate of 32,555 while Portales was at 11,130.

But Chase Gentry, executive director of the Clovis Industrial Development Corp., isn’t sure Census figures accurately track the impact Cannon Air Force Base brings, with 2,500 active personnel and their families.

Gentry said a bigger problem right now is a frozen credit market, which is keeping many industrial developments from investing in new businesses that could be placed in eastern New Mexico.

“Your population number impacts your workforce,” Gentry said. “If there’s a dip … it could create a problem where we don’t have enough workforce to do the job. But I think we’re in a situation where we’re under-employed.”

Meanwhile, Portales Executive Economic Development Director Greg Fisher said Portales isn’t given enough credit for Eastern New Mexico University, which boasts enrollment around 4,000.

“Several thousand students who show up in August and leave in May are never counted,” Fisher said. “Those students who are transient and add quite a bit to our economy are never counted.”

Staff at the University of New Mexico’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research would agree.

Demographer Dely Alcantara said the methodology used by the census office tends to undercount communities with college populations like Portales and military populations like Clovis.

Alcantara said counting migration by tracking tax returns undercounts those demographics because it requires at least two years of filings.

Often, she said, first-year college students or military members will be filing their first income tax return, so they’re not counted as a new resident. When future tax returns are filed in other locations, they’re treated as longtime residents who leave — not temporary residents.

“From those two counts,” Alcantara said, “migration will tend to undercount the in-migration and exaggerate the out-migration.”

Alcantara said the census is working to improve its methodology, but isn’t where it needs to be.

Jack Baker, a research scientist with the BBER, said the bureau will be releasing its own estimates in the next few months. Alcantara said the BBER focuses more on housing unit estimates.

Overall, the fastest growing U.S. city is New Orleans, The census bureau is treating the city as a statistical anomaly as it is gaining residents back following huge dips from those who fled Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

In Clovis and Portales, neither population decrease is greater than the assumed margin of error the census estimates. Harper said no actual margin of error exists, but when compared to 2000 census results, the margin of error was around 4.7 percent for cities in the 25,000-50,000 population range (Clovis) and 5.2 percent for cities in the 10,000-25,000 range (Portales).

Harper said other cities that are growing tend to be in the south and the west, and tend to be on the outskirts of larger cities.

New Orleans is followed by Round Rock, Texas (north of Austin), Cary, N.C. (west of Raleigh) and Gilbert, Ariz. (east of Phoenix).