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Census rejects city’s appeal of 2010 population totals; new Census numbers for Douglas County show growth slowed in 2012

I suppose all great disputes get to this point: the discussion of fecal matter.

That is what it has come to in the dispute between Lawrence City Hall and the U.S. Census Bureau.

The city and the Census Bureau still don’t agree on how many people live in Lawrence, and now it is official. The Census Bureau recently notified the city it has rejected the city’s appeal of the bureau’s 2010 Census findings for the city.

No matter, city officials are convinced their local data showing the city has a little more than 94,000 people is correct. And they have at least one unique piece of evidence to back it up: the weight of fecal matter.

City commissioners were told at their Tuesday meeting that the city has at least 30 years worth of data about how much “organic material” comes into the city’s sewer plant each year. (Yes, “organic material” is code for just what you are thinking.) Over the years, that number broken out on a per capita basis has remained pretty steady. Officials with the city’s utilities department told commissioners that the numbers they’re seeing tend to support the city’s population estimate more so than the Census Bureau’s count.

And that sounded good to city commissioners. (Well, maybe that’s not the best way to say that.) Regardless, the new direction for the city is to use the locally produced population estimates rather than relying on data from the Census that local officials now question.

The difference is significant. In 2010, the Census found the city had 87,643 people. The city believed it had about 90,000 people. The city’s Planning Department now estimates the city’s 2013 population to be 94,586 people. The Census hasn’t produced a 2013 population estimate yet, but the city expects it to be around 90,000 people. That’s a difference of about 5 percent.

And the difference likely will get bigger as more years pass because all the estimates use the 2010 total as a baseline. By 2020, who knows how much the Census Bureau and the city will disagree on the city’s population. The numbers have an impact on federal grants and that sort of thing, but the city also needs a good population number to do good planning. Like for a $64 million sewage treatment plant that the city gave preliminary approval to on Tuesday. (That’s why fecal matter data was so readily available, in case you are wondering.)

Population growth is one factor — although not the only one — in the city’s decision to move forward on the large project. The city is betting on a new era of growth. There’s a case to be made for that, but the city can’t point to Census data as a reason for their optimism.

With this appeal now in the books, the decade of the 2000s is now officially the slowest growth period for Lawrence since the Great Depression. The city grew at a rate of 0.9 percent a year for the decade of the 2000s, well below the more than 2 percent annual growth rates the city experienced in the 1980s and 1990s.

As for who is right and who is wrong in this dispute, I don’t know. The fecal data is interesting (never know what phrases you are going to write in this job), but it may not be the best indicator. As utility officials admit, not all of that material is human waste and not all of it comes from households. For example, when Hallmark starts producing more cards and envelopes as part of its Lawrence expansion, that project is expected to produce waste that is the equivalent of about 500 additional people. So, you can see how the numbers may be tough to interpret.

The Census Bureau, though, hasn’t done much to increase its credibility either. In notifying the city it was rejecting its appeal, the bureau did admit that it had messed up the count in some areas of town. But the Census is contending that it got the total count for the city right, but it didn’t allocate that population to some of the neighborhoods correctly. City officials have raised their eyebrows at that.

Tuesday’s meeting and its fecal content did produce a few good jokes from commissioners — mainly about how the city may want to offer its “weighing pooh” method to the Census Bureau.

What won’t be funny is if the city plans for and budgets for a lot of growth, and then it doesn’t happen. We’ll see who gets the last laugh — in about a decade or so.

•••

These numbers are just in this morning, so I thought I would add them on here. The Census Bureau has released it 2012 population estimates for Douglas County.

The new numbers won’t do anything to settle the dispute. If anything, they just add to it.

The Census Bureau found that from July 1, 2011, to July 1, 2012, Douglas County grew at a rate even slower than the rate the 2010 Census found.

The 2012 Douglas County population estimate checks in at 112,864 people, an increase of just 620 people for the year. That’s a growth rate of 0.5 percent. The 2010 Census found Douglas County during the decade of the 2000s grew at an average annual rate of about 1 percent. So now the Census Bureau is estimating we’re growing at about half that rate.

Oh, fecal matter.

Perhaps, the problem is we just don’t have enough purple. The new numbers show population growth around Kansas State University continues to boom. Manhattan’s metro area had a 2.8 percent population increase for the year, the 10th fastest for any metro area in the country.

Geary County, home to Junction City, had an increase of 7.4 percent for the year, the third fastest growth rate of any county in the country.

Douglas County did better than several other places, though. Several counties around us declined for the year. Here’s a look at the numbers for some other area counties:

— Johnson County 559,913 people (1.2 percent growth)

— Leavenworth: 77,739 (0.7 percent increase)

— Wyandotte: 159,129 ( 0.7 percent increase)

— Sedgwick: 503,899 (0.5 percent increase)

— Shawnee 178,991 (less than 0.1 percent increase)

— Franklin County 25,906 (less than 0.1 percent decline)

— Jefferson County 18,945 (0.2 percent decline)

— Osage County: 16,142 (1.1 percent decline)
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