In a cavernous new $7 million warehouse in Rosedale, federal contractors are unloading boxes and lining up computers, preparing for an onslaught of more than 35 million U.S. Census forms that will arrive next spring when America pauses for its decennial portrait.
Local planners -- with billions of dollars of federal funding and the division of electoral power at stake -- are updating mailing lists and forming publicity teams, hoping that every Marylander gets in the picture.
"It's an uphill battle," said Gloria Griffin, census coordinator in the Baltimore Department of Planning. "But we want to do the best we can do."
Each Marylander missed in the count translates into a loss of about $1,000 a year in federal funding that helps pay for roads, schools, housing and other programs, state officials said.
In 1990, the census overlooked more than 100,000 Marylanders, resulting in the loss of a billion federal dollars during the decade, said Ron Kreitner, director of the Maryland Office of Planning.
One-quarter of the Marylanders who received census forms in 1990 did not return the questionnaires in the mail. Census Bureau officials are predicting that the declining response rate nationwide will continue next year, requiring more field workers to locate the missing residents.
The contractors and government officials have only a few months to try to ensure that every American is counted.
Forms will be mailed to every known household in the country in March. Thousands of census workers, called enumerators, will be dispatched in the summer to locate residents who didn't respond.
The data will be compiled and presented to the president by Dec. 31, 2000. The information needed for drawing electoral districts will be released to the states in March 2001.
"We're staffing up and preparing for the dry run," said Susan Mann-Hammack, a spokeswoman for Computer Sciences Corp., a California-based firm that will hire and train more than 2,000 workers at the Rosedale Census Data Capture Center, one of four such operations in the country. "We're getting very excited."
Lockheed Martin Corp., which designed the optical scanners that will read the census forms, installed the equipment last month, and TRW and Computer Sciences Corp., which will be in charge of the operations center, are preparing for a trial run this summer.
Local officials are struggling to furnish the Census Bureau with an accurate list of households -- one that will include new houses and omit those that have been razed since the 1990 census.
Many localities found numerous mistakes on a preliminary address list the Census Bureau sent them in the fall.
"It was horrible," said Alexander D. Speer, Anne Arundel County demographer. "Seventeen percent of our addresses were missing, and there were a substantial number of errors."
Anne Arundel and Howard officials said many of the missed homes were on new streets -- but not all.
In Howard County, officials reviewed about 82,000 addresses and made 10,000 corrections. About half of those were omissions, said Roselle George, chief of research in the Department of Planning and Zoning.
Many local planners are reviewing the addresses in their rural areas to ensure the Census Bureau's record is complete by comparing the list from the Census Bureau with state property records and information from Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.
Accurate population numbers are critical not only for funding, but to draw fairly proportioned election districts for Congress, state representatives and local councils and commissions.
Planners also depend on the data to help calculate a range of population characteristics needed to develop community plans and provide local services in the years between each census.
"This is like ground zero for us," said Baltimore County Planning Director Arnold F. "Pat" Keller.
"The census is not going to outlive its usefulness," said Dunbar Brooks, a demographer for the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, an area planning agency. "If you don't get what approaches a census, then any of the smaller samples you do have nothing to compare it to."
In growing counties such as Howard, officials worry that the Census Bureau will miss new housing developments. About 3,100 residents in Howard were overlooked in the last count, George said.
The county also had problems with census workers counting houses that were under construction, giving Howard an unusually high vacancy rate, she said. "Those are the things we have to look at."
In Baltimore County, officials will be concentrating on getting a good response from residents of the east and west sides, where large numbers failed to return their census forms in 1990. Ervin McDaniel, a county planner in charge of the census effort, said Baltimore County lost $3 million in the undercount.
This year, the chance of missing residents is even greater, he said. "The county has changed quite a bit since 1990, with larger immigrant and black populations."