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City ramps up Census efforts

Posted on August 24, 2020

By Tia Lyons
El Dorado News-Times

With cash in hand, El Dorado city officials are working against the clock to amp up efforts to raise awareness about and participation in the 2020 U.S. Census.

A funding request of up to $5,000 has been approved by the El Dorado Works Board and the El Dorado City Council to launch a promotional campaign to encourage local residents to complete and submit Census forms by the Sept. 30 deadline.

The funding comes from the El Dorado Works tax, a 1-cent city sales tax that is used for economic development, municipal infrastructure and quality-of-life improvements.

On Aug. 13, the EWB, which administers the tax, approved the maximum $5,000 funding request, which was presented by city council members Willie McGhee and Judy Ward.

The EWB then forwarded its recommendation to the city council, whose members gave the final OK during a regular meeting Aug. 20.

On the same day, council members heard from Debra Joyner, partnership specialist with the Chicago Regional Census Center, which covers Arkansas, who reported that the Census response rate for El Dorado was 58.2%.

Joyner provided additional details that highlighted the importance of participating in the Census count.

McGhee, Ward and other volunteers are working with various groups to develop a promotional campaign to bring the response rate as close to 100% as possible.

The $5,000 will go toward paid social media advertising.

There are also plans to use the city’s two digital billboards — one of which is on the property of the Boys and Girls Club of El Dorado on North West Avenue and the other at the El Dorado Conference Center — to help spread the word.

Other ideas include working with local churches and corporations to share information among their parishioners and employees, respectively; reaching out to local media outlets to run public service announcements; including reminders in monthly water bills that are sent out by the El Dorado Water Utilities; and setting up Census booths at businesses with heavy foot traffic, such as Walmart Supercenter, Brookshire’s grocery stores and local libraries.

McGhee and Ward have said that the promotional campaign will include components that are designed to educate residents about the importance of responding to the Census and to help residents complete forms.

For instance, volunteers will be asked to man Census booths to offer such assistance.

The goal is to reach groups that are typically underrepresented in decennial Census counts, including college students, immigrants, nursing home residents and the homeless population.

Timelines for 2020 Census operations have been delayed and revised because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and directives from the White House and United States House of Representatives.

Field operations, which entail census-takers going door to door, were to have ended Oct. 31 but the date has been reset to Sept. 30 Per the U.S. Constitution, the U.S. Census Bureau is to deliver a final count to the White House by Dec. 31, but due to the public health crisis, the deadline was initially extended to April 30, 2021.

However, earlier this month, Steven Dillingham, director of the U.S. Census Bureau, announced that Census enumerations will end Sept. 30, instead of Oct. 31, and efforts will be made to finalize the count by Dec. 31 at the behest of the House of Representatives and President Donald Trump.

Field operations began in El Dorado Aug. 11 and with the deadline shortened for the enumeration process, McGhee and Ward hastened long-discussed efforts to encourage local participation.

‘Already prepping for the 2030 Census’

As early as 2016, McGhee called on city officials to get the ball rolling on a plan to prepare for the 2020 Census.

McGhee has said that he felt the city’s population was under-counted in the 2010 Census and he wanted to prevent a recurrence of that in 2020.

Per the 2010 Census, El Dorado’s population was 18,884. A follow-up estimate in 2019 placed the city’s population at 17,651.

For Union County, the 2010 Census count was 41,639 and by July of 2019, the county’s population had dropped to an estimated 38,682, representing a decrease of 7.1%.

Response rates for El Dorado and Union County in 2010 were 75% and 71%, respectively, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Union County Judge Mike Loftin is also encouraging county residents to respond to the 2020 Census.

Reminders were included in annual real property tax bills that were distributed earlier this year by the Union County Tax Assessor’s Office.

Joyner reported Aug. 20 that the response rate for Union County was 56.7%., adding that that the rates for El Dorado and Union County are among the highest in southern Arkansas.

Upon hearing that the deadline for Censustaking had been cut short, city officials and community leaders met Aug. 19 to discuss strategy.

In attendance were Ward, McGhee (by phone), Mayor Veronica Smith-Creer, Chamber of Commerce officials, representatives from the Murphy Arts District and the Diamond Agency, the ad agency of record for the El Dorado Advertising and Promotion Commission.

The aforementioned ideas were suggested during the meeting.

Joyner said she is also working with local communities that are within the coverage area of the Chicago Regional Census Center.

She noted the revised enumeration schedule due to COVID-19 and the new deadline, telling council members, “So we’re in crunch time right now, trying to get as close to that hundred percent goal as possible.” Joyner said the Census Bureau has hosted outreach events to raise awareness about the Census, set up mobile assistance units and held Census “parades” in rural communities in the region.

Locally, the bureau has coordinated efforts with Barton Library and assigned Census workers to circulate downtown El Dorado to help boost response numbers.

She reiterated previous statements that were made by Ward, who said that Census numbers help determine how much federal funding communities receive for essential services and programs.

For El Dorado, Ward said an estimated $2,500 per person is distributed.

McGhee he has felt that El Dorado has missed out “on a lot of funding and grants” because of a low population count in 2010.

Joyner further explained the matter, saying, “… We rely on Census data for government issues, reapportioning (Congressional) seats for the state, forecasting future housing needs for segments of the city, designing public strategies … $675 billion is distributed annually based on Census data.” She added that Arkansas receives about $46 billion of that annual federal distribution and the funds are funneled through the state to counties and cities, based on population.

The Census is also a determining factor in identifying areas for housing assistance and rehabilitation and drawing boundaries and distributing funding for school districts, Joyner said.

She emphasized the importance of an accurate Census count for the entire state, saying that Arkansas is often not prioritized within the Chicago Regional Census Center coverage area, which also includes Illinois, Missouri, Idaho, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan.

“So, we kind of get pushed to the side and they projected that we were going to do what we did in 2010 but we’ve surpassed all of that and we want to continue to increase our participation in the 2020 Census and we’re already prepping for the 2030 Census,” she said.