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Eastern Iowa cities work toward uncertain census deadline

It's unsettled if the counting ends in early or late October

In this Tuesday, March 24, 2020 photo, forms from the U.S. Census Bureau arrive at a home in Orlando, Fla. The coronavir
In this Tuesday, March 24, 2020 photo, forms from the U.S. Census Bureau arrive at a home in Orlando, Fla. The coronavirus has waylaid efforts to get as many people as possible to take part in the census. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Despite disruption brought on by the pandemic and then the derecho — and now a dispute over the deadline — Eastern Iowa cities working to get a complete count of their residents say this year’s online census reporting has helped amid all the uncertainty.

Most Iowa residents already have taken advantage of the new option of responding online, which local government officials say has made the census more accessible — especially while the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted business as usual.

But for those who haven’t, the big question is: How much longer do they have to respond?

Days after a federal judge ordered the Census Bureau to continue enumerating for another month beyond the early deadline it set for Wednesday, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the agency, announced he intends to end counting next week.

“The Secretary of Commerce has announced a target date of October 5, 2020, to conclude 2020 Census self-response and field data collection operations,” according to a Census Bureau announcement Monday on Twitter.

The agency provided no further information or rationale for the new end date. And as of late Monday afternoon, the agency also had not filed any documents in a California case overseen by U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh of the Northern District of California. Koh ruled against the Census Bureau last week, finding that the deadline of this Wednesday likely violated administrative law.

In a Monday court conference, Koh ordered the government to immediately turn over documents related to the newly announced deadline. So until that is settled, it’s unknown how much longer counting will continue — until next week or until Oct. 31?

Iowa’s s self-response rate currently hovers just under the 73 percent rate of the 2010 census.

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Linn County has one of the five highest response rates of Iowa’s 99 counties at 74.7 percent, surpassing its 2010 rate of 73.1 percent.

Ashley Balius, the Linn County community outreach and assistance director, attributed those rates to the ability to fill out the census online.

She said she is continuing to work on spreading the word to area organizations, especially to ensure hard-to-reach populations are counted, considering this may not be top-of-mind “for a lot of organizations who are trying to help folks recover from the derecho and ongoing issues related to COVID.”

Balius said she is also working with area shelters to confirm a proper head count of the county’s homeless population.

Those who were displaced by the Aug. 10 derecho, if they have not already responded to the census, should fill it out with information about their place of residence as of April 1.

The county’s most populous city, Cedar Rapids, is on par with the county response rate at 73.3 percent, inching past its 2010 response rate of 72.4 percent.

Adam Lindenlaub, a planner with the city’s Community Development Department, said since long before the derecho, the city was working with county partners, not-for-profits and other agencies to tell residents of the census.

That includes working with organizations such as the Catherine McAuley Center and League of United Latin American Citizens to educate immigrant and refugee about the questions on the census and explain how the information is used.

“A lot of time we’re maybe talking about these nebulous things, federal government and programs, and so for citizens sometimes, they maybe don’t see those in their everyday life,” Lindenlaub said, adding that people may not realize census information determines how the city and county gets government funding for key programs and services.

After the 2010 census, Iowa lost one of its five seats in the U.S. House because of the population decline shown in the census compared with population growth in other states.

“We lost a member of Congress. We lost a voice for the state of Iowa in 2010,” Lindenlaub said. “Even without the pandemic and the storm, this was just so important, which is why we were really working on the different ways to get outreach to people.”

On the southern end of the Corridor, Iowa City is seeing a “dramatic drop” in the self-response rate this year compared with 2010, said Assistant City Manager Ashley Monroe — totaling 68 percent, falling under the 2010 rate of 75.8 percent.

Monroe said the city is working to communicate with the University of Iowa to reach Iowa City’s student population, and also with landlords and property owners and social service providers.

The national head count began in the spring, around the time students began to return home after the UI moved classes online and closed residence halls because of the pandemic.

The concentration of the city’s lowest response rates “really is in areas of highly populated areas in town,” Monroe said, which are typically the areas that predominantly house students.

“That’s concerning to us just because of the potential implications it has for both the community and the city services that are provided there, but also for ... the things that our student and professional population would find advantageous to have a fully supported university area and all the things that come with living in a community in a university town,” Monroe said. “We may not see the benefits of those things because we don’t have enough benefits of people saying that they live here.”

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Other Eastern Iowa cities have seen considerable population growth in the last decade, becoming eligible for hundreds of thousands of dollars through special counts they paid for.

One of those cities, North Liberty, is outpacing neighboring Iowa City with a self-response rate of 78.7 percent, up from 2010’s rate.

“That’s how a lot of businesses decide where they’re looking to open new stores,” city of North Liberty Communications Director Nick Bergus said. “That’s how social service agencies decide to provide services and how they get funding for those, but it’s also how we see representation at the Statehouse. It’s how we see representation federally …”

Because of the community’s rapid growth, Bergus said road-use tax funding is key as North Liberty builds and maintains its roads.

North Liberty’s special census determined that about a half-million dollars more a year would be available for road maintenance and construction.

To the north, Marion’s partial special census, which focused on a portion of the city, provided the city with about $2.6 million in additional tax revenue until the 2020 census is done.

Marion City Manager Lon Pluckhahn urged residents to remind their neighbors to respond to the national head count. Its response rate is 76.9 percent, falling just under its 2010 rate so far.

“If we aren’t, for example, able to do a special census in between — say the Census Bureau just doesn’t have the capacity to do it — we could miss out on the funding opportunity for 10 years, and that comes up to millions of dollars that, by virtue of those folks living here, we should be getting,” Pluckhahn said. “We want to make sure that we maximize it.”

Comments: (319) 398-8494; marissa.payne@thegazette.com

CQ-Roll Call contributed.

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