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Nelson County's census response rate lagging behind surrounding localities

Nelson County's census response rate lagging behind surrounding localities

Only $3 for 13 weeks

With the deadline for self-responses closing in, Nelson County is lagging behind surrounding localities in U.S. Census responses, which could cost it thousands of federal dollars, according to a census official.

Performed every 10 years, the census uses collected data to distribute hundreds of billions of dollars to fund programs in any given locality based on its population.

Self-response rates, which are due July 31 before census officials begin making door-to-door visits in August, in Nelson County are reported at 46% as of press time Tuesday about 15 percentage points below the state average.

Most other surrounding localities and cities remain on par with the state average of 66.6%, according to a census response rates map on the 2020 census website. Virginia is performing above the national average — 61.8% — on self- responses.

Rates for nearby localities as of Saturday were as follows: Lynchburg, 63.6%; Amherst, 65.6%; Appomattox, 63.3%; Bedford, 68.9%; and Campbell, 63.6%.

Tim Maddaloni, assistance regional census manager, said the lower numbers in Nelson could be a result of a “combination of things.”

A lack of reliable internet for a large portion of Nelson as well as the rural nature of the county could be affecting response rates, among other issues.

Nelson County Administrator Steve Carter also believes the lack of internet access for a large portion of Nelson could be playing a role in the low self-response rates so far, which he said is a cause for concern.

“I can’t put my finger on what the ramifications would be, but if we significantly underreport there probably will be some ramification, especially financially,” Carter said.

While local economies have suffered at the hands of the pandemic, Chief Financial Officer for the city of Lynchburg Donna Witt said federal and state money typically can’t be used to replace lost revenues from meals, sales and lodging taxes, areas she said are being affected by the pandemic on the local level.

In the months of March and April, Nelson County has reported only fractions in lodging and meals tax revenues compared to those same months last year.

Regardless of the locality, Maddaloni stressed the importance of having an accurate census count. That data, he said, will “shape the future of the community for the next 10 years.”

“It would go right to health care, hospitals, roads, schools, education programs, bridges. All are impacted by the census 2020 funding,” Maddaloni, whose coverage area includes Richmond, Virginia Beach and Roanoke as well as West Virginia, said. Nelson County falls under the Roanoke-area census office.

Witt said in an email many federal and state funding streams are based on population.

Bedford County Administrator Robert Hiss said funding tied to the census count covers a “multitude of service areas and typically have restrictions on their use.”

Hiss said the importance of an accurate population count goes beyond just money as local leaders will use the information gathered for future planning.

Carter said residents have a responsibility as citizens to complete the form.

Currently, citizens can complete their census self-responses in one of three ways: going online, responding via telephone or returning the paper form.

Maddaloni said while response rates in Nelson County are low, there still is plenty of time to get responses in or to simply wait for a visit from census staff.

Once the door-to-door visits begin, Maddaloni said staff will be equipped with personal protective equipment, masks, gloves and will follow appropriate social distancing or other safety guidelines that may be in place at that time.

“The safety of the general public and the safety of our staff is first and foremost,” Maddaloni said.

Carter estimated the door-to-door phase would be a critical next step in increasing response rates for Nelson County.

“Once the actual census workers are actively deployed in the county, that will really help with the reporting,” Carter said.

Originally set to begin in May, COVID-19 has delayed census takers from going door-to-door until mid-August.

While the numbers may seem low now, Nelson County’s current response rate is about equal with where it was after the completion of the 2010 census process — 48.9%, according to the online census response rates map. Maddaloni anticipated responses will continue to climb leading into the in-person response phase.

“It’s a positive sign that the community understands the importance of the census and the billions of dollars that flow into the community,” Maddaloni said.

Nick Cropper covers Nelson County. Reach him at (434) 385-5522.

Nick Cropper covers Nelson County. Reach him at (434) 385-5522.

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