Don't count on preliminary 1990 Census for accuracy, Schmoke tells House panel

September 26, 1990|By James Bock | James Bock,Sun Staff Correspondent

WASHINGTON -- What should you believe: the 1990 Census or your own eyes?

When it comes to the 98-unit Chesapeake Commons apartments, the old City College building at North Howard and Centre streets, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke told a congressional subcommittee yesterday that he believes his own eyes.

The census indicates that the 5-year-old apartments in downtown Baltimore aren't there, he said.

"I go past it every day, and it's hard to persuade me it doesn't exist," the mayor said. "My wife is an ophthalmologist, and she does a pretty good job on my eyes."

Mr. Schmoke visited Capitol Hill not to tell census horror stories, but to urge Congress to prod the Census Bureau to use statistical methods to adjust its preliminary 1990 head counts.

With Baltimore's preliminary population at 720,100, about 25,000 less than city and state planners expected, millions of dollars in federal aid and plenty of political clout are riding on the outcome.

But Mr. Schmoke said Baltimore would not join a big-city lawsuit, led by New York, that seeks to force the federal government to statistically adjust the figures to compensate for an undercount of minorities.

"I prefer persuasion over coercion, but I believe that there is much the Census Bureau must be persuaded to do," he told the House Subcommittee on Census and Population.

The mayor took a moderate stance at a hearing where the mayor of Meridian, Miss., called the census "a colossal $2.6 billion flop" and the mayor of Chicago accused the bureau of missing 190,000 of his constituents in the preliminary count.

However, Mr. Schmoke's patience with the Census Bureau appeared to be wearing thin.

Baltimore has been regarded as a model of census cooperation. Mr. Schmoke said in written testimony that the city has spent more than $1 million to promote the census, $120,000 in direct expenditures and the rest in in-kind costs.

"But our efforts so far have been in vain," the mayor said.

He urged the Census Bureau to recanvass all 1,136 blocks where the city has challenged counts as too low, and to give the city a chance to review revised population totals before the final figures are delivered to the president on Dec. 31.

"Anything less makes the concept of local review a sham," he said.

Finally, he called on the bureau to rethink how the census is taken, "with an eye toward doing all future censuses by scientific sampling and estimation."

He added that bureau statisticians "have the ability to make an accurate projection -- far more accurate than the 1990 Census is turning out to be."

The mayor said in an interview that the city would be "stuck with these figures" unless, as a last resort, Congress required a statistical adjustment by law.

He rejected the lawsuit that seeks to force adjustment as something that "wouldn't lead to any meaningful results, just a large expenditure of money by the city."

Barbara E. Bryant, director of the Census Bureau, told the subcommittee that the agency would have the time and money to recanvass all areas where local governments have pointed out serious discrepancies with the preliminary counts.

Dr. Bryant said localities would not get another shot at review, as Mr. Schmoke had suggested.

She said 5,337 local governments, or 13.6 percent, have lodged challenges. Even before the challenges, the bureau had recanvassed 15 percent of the nation's housing units, she said.

But L. Nye Stevens of the congressional General Accounting Office doubted that recanvassing would come near closing the gap between the preliminary counts and the population estimates for big cities.

A GAO official said 244 blocks in Baltimore have been recanvassed, adding nearly 1,100 housing units to the city's total. At the city average of 2.4 persons per household, that would boost Baltimore's population by about 2,600.

At that rate, even if the Census Bureau accepted the city challenge to all 1,136 blocks -- which seems unlikely -- Baltimore's population would grow by less than 14,000.

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