Plugging Census 2000
The nearly 40 percent of Buncombe County residents who didn’t return their mail-in census surveys in 1990 may have cost us more than $1.8 million in federal and state funds, Anita Metcalf reported to the Board of Commissioners during their Jan. 4 regular session. As the county’s training-and-development director, she urged the board to “partner” with the Census Bureau this year in convincing residents to participate in Census 2000.
“Our goal is to reduce the undercount,” added Bureau Partnership Specialist Edna Campos. The census counts taken each decade have a big impact on nonprofit organizations, local governments, service agencies, schools — everyone who benefits from federal and state funding, she emphasized. But only 61 percent of Buncombe’s residents responded to the 1990 mail-in census effort — primarily because of privacy concerns. By law, the bureau and its employees are not allowed to share personal data, Campos assured commissioners. “The bureau only reports statistical data,” she emphasized.
In addition, the local Census Bureau office is a “lockdown” center — visitors aren’t allowed in, and high levels of security are maintained at all times, Campos added.
That said, she urged the Board of Commissioners — as well as local employers, organizations and individuals — to help the bureau get the word out: When you get your census form in the mail this spring, fill it out. And if you need help, call the bureau to get the location of the nearest census-assistance center. Bureau staff are equipped to help the elderly and disabled, as well as those for whom English is a second language, Campos reported.
In the short term, Census 2000 also means economic development: For temporary Census Bureau jobs that start Feb. 1, the pay will be $9.50 per hour (and more for some positions). “That’s pretty good for part-time work in Western North Carolina,” said local Census Bureau Office Manager Robert Haskins.
When it came to formally adding their support,board members didn’t need much convincing. Vice Chair Patsy Keever asked only for the phone number residents could call for more information (258-8079). Commissioners voted unanimously to partner with the bureau in getting the word out via the new Census Complete Count Committee, which will include representatives from local government, education, religion, media, community-based organizations, businesses, and job-recruitment and housing organizations.
After the meeting, Campos remarked that others can help, too: Employers could agree to post census information at work, and remind employees and customers about Census 2000, for example.
The biggest challenge comes in informing people about the benefits of the census, she continued: Nearly $100 billion in federal-funding distributions will be affected by census counts; the reapportioning of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives will be based on Census 2000 data; local, state and federal legislative districts will be drawn based on the data; planning and funding for public-transportation services will be impacted; and programs such as Smart Start and Head Start will receive funding based largely on census information. As for economic development, businesses also use census data when researching where to locate and where to find the needed work force. “People don’t realize the importance of [the census],” Campos noted.
She also pointed out that those who don’t mail in their Census 2000 forms will probably receive a phone call or a visit from bureau employees, anyway. “And if your dog eats your census form, you can call to get a replacement,” Campos quipped.
To make things even easier, a large percentage of residents will receive the short-form questionnaire (“the shortest in 180 years,” according to a Census 2000 flyer) — which doesn’t include questions about all the children ever born to a family, the year last employed, and the source of water and sewage sevice — among others. The short-form questionnaire will still ask for such basic information as the respondent’s name, sex, age, race and whether the home is owned or rented.
One in six households will receive the long form — especially in rural counties and small towns. This form includes questions about marital status, the number of units in the resident’s building, the number of rooms in the home, specifics on plumbing and kitchen facilities, current work status, occupation, number of vehicles, and the value of the home and/or monthly rent.
According to the Census 2000 flyer, “By law, the Census Bureau cannot share your answers with others, including welfare agencies, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Internal Revenue Service, courts, police and the military.”
The clear-as-mud auditor’s report
If you’ve tried to read Buncombe County’s Annual Financial Report with about as much luck as you undoubtedly had wading through Asheville’s Unified Development Ordinance, blame it on the federal government: The feds require such reports to be highly technical and so formalized that it baffles the brain.
Nonetheless, it was required reading for commissioners recently — before they could formally accept the auditor’s clean bill of health for the county’s finances on Jan. 4.
Board of Commissioners Chair Tom Sobol said he’d read the report several times.
But Buncombe County resident Gerald Dean remarked, speaking of his own reading attempt to read the hefty document, “I’d go nuts if I had to figure it out. … This thing needs to be simplified, so the general public can understand it.”
Sobol replied that the tome is as simplified as it can be.
“I just want to know where my [tax dollars] are going,” countered Dean. “If you can explain [the report] to me, Tom, you can walk on water.”
County Finance Director Nancy Brooks noted that a shorter, “popular” version of the Annual Financial Report is also available. “It basically tells you where the dollars came in and where they went out,” she explained, handing Dean a hot-off-the-presses copy. This condensed version will be available at the county’s Budget Department and Finance Department offices (both located at One Oak Plaza), as well as on its Web site (www.buncombecounty.org), Brooks mentioned. County staff would appreciate feedback from the public on how the document could be more simplified, she added.
In the meantime, here are some “highlights” of the county’s Annual Financial Report:
• The county’s fund balance is up to $38.5 million, with 65 percent of that amount “available for appropriation.” In total dollars, that’s an increase from last year. But as a percentage of the county’s total expenditures, it’s actually a decrease. The state treasurer’s office recommends that counties similar in size to Buncombe keep the fund balance at about 20 percent of expenditures; Buncombe County’s is down one percentage point from last year, to 15 percent, county staff reported. Sobol argued that the drop is a result of the fact that the Board of Commissioners hasn’t raised taxes in the past five years, even though expenses have been increasing.
• The county’s tax-collection rate is 98.47 percent — about a percentage point above the state average. “Everybody pays, and nobody gets off,” said Commissioner Gantt about the good collection rate.
• Nearly 61 percent of county revenues come from property taxes, sales taxes, deed-stamp taxes, cable-franchise taxes and privilege licenses. Last year’s revenues totaled $189,895,924.
• The largest expense category is human services, which accounts for 29.1 percent of the county budget. Education is next, at 21.6 percent, followed by public safety (17.1 percent). About 9 percent of the county’s expenditures are for paying off the debts or making installment payments on such items as the new voting machines ($2.7 million) and the Owen Community Pool ($1.3 million). Overall, expenditures increased by 8.1 percent last year.
• An unexpected cost for the county in the past year was the new drainage system at McCormick Field ($477,729). On the other hand, a large portion of the money needed for a new soccer-and-ballfield complex in Enka-Candler was raised through donations, grants and sponsorships.