Schmoke formally complains of census undercount

September 14, 1990|By Martin C. Evans

Baltimore stands to lose millions of dollars in federal aid over the next 10 years because of an undercount in the 1990 U.S. Census, according to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who has joined a growing chorus of U.S. mayors to officially challenge census results.

"We always had expected a population loss -- we just don't believe the loss is as dramatic as these figures show," said the mayor, who until now has avoided criticizing the census figures. "I hope we're able to move these numbers up."

City officials yesterday sent a letter by private courier to the U.S. Census Bureau regional office in Philadelphia, formally challenging the figures. The city challenge was based on comparisons between the number of housing units identified by the Census Bureau and the number identified by city researchers.

The difference is crucial, because under census rules, if the city can prove that the number of housing units was undercounted, they can use that to create a presumption that people were undercounted, too.

The federal government last month released a preliminary census count listing Baltimore's population as 720,100. The count represents an 8.5 percent decline from the city's 1980 census tally of 786,775 people.

Mr. Schmoke said he believes the city population is at least 740,000and possibly as large as 750,000.

The mayor said that while census workers used mailing addresses to identify households to be counted in the census, an examination of city property records and Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. accounts indicated there were many more households than census officials believed.

Ray N. Bird, who is coordinating the city's review of the census figures, said that census tract 203, block 103 -- which includes portions of the 2000 blocks of Aliceanna and Fountain streets in Fells Point-- provides a dramatic example of how federal officials botched the count in the city.

Mr. Bird said that although city records showed there were 23 housing units in block 103, census workers only counted two housing units there. When city officials went to Fells Point, the homes were all there as they had expected.

"You can't miss them," Mr. Bird said. "They're as big as life."

A visit to the block by reporters for The Sun yesterday showed that only four of the 23 houses cited by the city had been finished and only two or three were occupied. However, according to census officials, a house need be neither occupied nor finished, but merely closed off from the elements, to be considered a dwelling unit for census purposes.

In all, the Schmoke administration says, census workers failed to count five or more homes in each of 1,136 census blocks, or about 13 percent of the city. There are 8,635 census blocks in the city.

Much more than just prestige is at stake for Baltimore, which would fall from 10th to 14th in the ranking of largest U.S. cities under the census.

City officials estimate that the financially strapped city lost $230 million in federal aid during the past decade because of a failure to fully count the city's population in the 1980 census.

Although city officials declined to put a dollar figure on how much could be lost during the 1990s, they say it could be a substantial sum.

Political observers say the city stands to lose two seats in the Maryland Senate and six seats in the House of Delegates when the legislative district lines are redrawn to reflect the latest population figures.

"Obviously, it means a lot to us in terms of [federal] aid as well as apportionment figures," Mr. Schmoke said.

The city had until today to challenge the census count of homes and the number of people living in group accommodations, such as dormitories, nursing homes, jails and homeless shelters.

The city's challenge does not refer to census blocks in which nTC fewer than five homes may have been overlooked because the bureau does not recognize such challenges.

If the bureau is convinced the city's challenge is valid, it could send workers to count people living in the uncounted homes and group facilities.

"We think they missed a lot," Mr. Bird said.

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