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Michigan launches statewide census tour in Oakland County

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Pontiac — As the 2020 census approaches, state and local officials had a message for Michigan residents on Monday: "Be counted."

The Michigan 2020 Census campaign launched its statewide town hall tour at a Pontiac church to highlight how filling out the form for a complete population count this spring determines the funding communities receive to boost services such as public safety, health care, education and roads through 2030.

Pontiac Mayor Deirdre Holloway Waterman helps kick off for the "Be Counted" campaign for the Michigan Census in Pontiac on Monday.

"It's imperative because each one of us, in one way or another, receives some type of federal funding," said Oakland County Commissioner Shelley Taub, R-Bloomfield Hills, who co-chairs the Oakland County Complete Count Committee working to promote census completion. "We don’t want it to go away."  

The state Legislature has allocated $16 million to help with outreach and preparation for the 2020 census, which includes nine questions and takes less than 10 minutes to complete.

Citing preliminary federal data on expected response rates, campaign representatives estimate more than 4.3 million state residents are estimated to be hard to count this year or less likely to complete the census. 

Throughout the town hall Monday at New Mount Moriah International Church, officials stressed why under-counting hinders a process they described as "critical, convenient and confidential."

"The census is the golden standard of statistical data for our communities and it helps inform a number of decisions we make," said Kerry Ebersole Singh, Michigan Statewide 2020 Census director.

In 2016, Michigan received nearly $30 billion in federal funding, including $1.1 billion for highway planning and construction, $16 billion for health programs, $5 billion for education, $2.3 billion for food assistance programs and $694 million for housing assistance.

An inaccurate count can have major ramifications for areas as large as Oakland County, said its county executive, Dave Coulter. "Even just 1-2% that we miss, we’re talking about millions of dollars in critical funding."

Oakland County Executive David Coulter, with Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel at the kickoff of the "Be Counted" campaign, warns county residents that not filling out the census forms can mean loss of federal funding for the county.

Oakland County Commissioner Angela Powell, D-Pontiac, laid it out in other terms.

"If Pontiac has a residency count of about 60,000 but we only get 40,000 to register, that’s 20,000 that the city is taking care of and we (aren't) getting any federal funding for it," she said. "It’s unfair. ... We need every dime so that we can be able to be on the same playing field with every other community that surrounds us."

That's why Pontiac Mayor Deirdre Waterman said a committee in her city is working to reach all demographics.

She estimates each person missed represents about $1,800 in lost funding.

"Everyone has to be counted," Waterman said. "We don’t want to leave any money on the table."

Coulter said the county has added two employees whose job is to work with local communities to ensure harder to reach groups, such as students, renters, and refugees, are counted.

"We need to make certain that everyone living in Oakland County is counted because it’s critical to the success of our county, our region and our state," Oakland County Treasurer Andy Meisner said. "There is a lot at stake."

The census also spreads into the political realm.

Besides funding law enforcement as well as community programs, Attorney General Dana Nessel told the audience, "our state's population also determines how many congressional seats we have. And we are at risk now of not just losing one seat, but we could actually lose two seats and receive far fewer electoral votes in the presidential election."

While some residents have expressed concerns about cybersecurity and whether immigrants will be targeted by responding, Nessel and other panelists stressed census answers are secure and won't be shared with authorities.

"Census responses cannot be used against anyone by any government agency or any court in any way," the attorney general said. "It can’t be used by the FBI, it can’t be used by the CIA, it can’t be used by Homeland Security and it cannot be used by ICE. The law requires the Census Bureau to keep information confidential and to use responses only to produce statistics, and that is all."

That reassured Jerlisa Thompson, a Pontiac resident who attended the forum.

"It sounds secure,"  she said. "There’s no need to be worried."

The town hall was a boon for Linda Wallace, another Pontiac resident who wondered about the steps involved and how her responses will shape public services.

She believes other residents need a refresher to not ignore it.

"It’s going to open the eyes of the people," she said.

Elmeisha Branner, a longtime Pontiac resident who attends the church, agreed.

"There are so many people who don’t have information about it," she said.