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Jewish World Review April 16, 2001 / 23 Nissan, 5761

Des Dearlove and Stuart Crainer

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Consumer Reports

Towns to Census: Yes, we do exist afterall -- THE tiny Wyoming town of Lost Springs isn't really lost, nor did Florida's upscale community of Belleair Shore wash away, even though the Census Bureau indicated they did.

The Census Bureau reported at least 17 communities had a population of zero in the 2000 enumeration and another 38 had fewer than 10 people. But hundreds of residents in those towns and villages want the federal government to know that reports of their demise are greatly exaggerated.

"We are still very much a town. Should I be calling somebody? I don't want us to get wiped out," said Belleair Shore Mayor John Robertson. "It's hard to believe that this happened. The census people had been here last year, bringing forms and asking our help in delivering them."

Although the 2000 census has been touted as the most accurate population count in U.S. history, hundreds of thousands of people were overlooked or assigned to incorrect geographic locations.

"We've made great strides relative to our counts historically," Commerce Secretary Donald Evans said last month. "We have the lowest undercount in history by far. The undercount was slightly more than 1 percent, which is a remarkable achievement."

That modest error rate means at least 3 million people were missed. Some of these errors occurred over geographic areas large enough to eliminate entire communities.

"I received a call from a researcher at the University of Florida recently who said we had a count of zero and wanted to know if we were still a functioning town. I assured him that we are," Robertson said.

Belleair Beach, located north of St. Petersburg, became Florida's smallest community when it was incorporated in 1955. The beachfront town of 55 households measures 5,000 feet long and only 230 feet deep. But it's a legal municipality with a population of about 110 people, 82 of whom are registered voters.

"I would guess that we were all counted, but then placed into the population of another town. There are the towns of Belleair, Belleair Bluff, Belleair Beach and Belleair Shore. All four are in the same area," Robertson said.

More of a mystery is what happened to the isolated farming community of Ohlman Village, Ill, located about 30 miles south of the state capital, Springfield.

"I don't know how they came up with a number of zero. We have something like 180 people here," said Ohlman Postmaster Jana Willis. "Being such a small town, everyone knows all of the parents, the kids, the dogs and the cats. Our population has been holding steady. In fact, we had a family of eight move in recently, so we've had a slight increase."

As in the case of Belleair Beach, Willis distinctly remembers census enumerators coming to her asking for help to identify the homes inside village boundaries. But no one came knocking on doors to deliver the forms.

"I can't understand what the problem was or why the census didn't send people door-to-door here. Our village clerk has made several calls to Chicago and Washington to try to get the problem resolved," Willis said.

The residents of tiny S.N.P.J., Pa., have been more successful. There will be a recount for the Lawrence County community whose initials mean Slovenska Narodna Podporna Jednota or the "Slovene National Benefit Society," which purchased the land that became a borough in 1978.

"People from the Census Bureau are coming back in June. They agree that population zero was just not true for us," said borough constable Jeff Wisneski. "I never received a census form in the mail. Could the census be off by millions? If they missed us, they could miss anybody."

Wisneski said 14 people are residents of S.N.P.J., although only he, his wife and two children live there year-round.

Lost Springs Mayor Leta Price, meanwhile, wonders why the census counted only one resident of her tiny eastern Wyoming town, but not the other three. "They made a misprint or something. Really, we are at four people here," she said.

It takes more than one person to be a town, she said. Yet the census reports that both Lost Springs and New Amsterdam, Ind., are single-person burgs. It counted a couple of two-person communities and four places that had only three people each.

"At this point it is impossible to speculate why all this happened," said Bob Rinaldi, manager of the Census' Count Question Resolution Program, which will begin examining all reports of inaccurate counts on June 30. "We do not know if these are boundary problems or geo-coding problems in which we put homes on the wrong side of a census block line."

Rinaldi said the Census Bureau will receive complaints from local officials through September 2003. "There is ample time for all governments to review their data and contact us," he said.

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© 2001, SHNS.