Lee officials: Numbers from census don't add up

LEESBURG, Ga. -- When the U.S. Census Bureau took a look at population trends in 2009 and estimated population counts for the 2010 census, Lee County was projected to continue the growth spurt that had made it one of the fastest-growing counties in the nation.

Somewhere between speculation and the actual census count, though, the numbers took a dramatic turn.

Rather than the 34,410 population projected by the Census Bureau in 2009, Lee County's actual census count came in at 28,298, an increase of only 3,541 residents.

Lee officials, counting on the increased federal and state funding that comes with population growth, have been left scratching their heads, wondering what went wrong.

"Something just doesn't add up," Rick Muggridge, the vice chairman of the Lee County Commission and chairman of the We Count, Lee Count census committee, said Monday when asked what might have gone wrong. "The question you're asking me, that's the same question I'm asking.

"Right now, we're left with no idea of what the reality is."

Muggridge and Lee Elections Supervisor Veronica Johnson, who also served on the We Count, Lee Count committee, said they'd have a better idea of what action might be taken when the Census Bureau releases the individual census block counts.

"We're really at a standstill until we get the block counts," Muggridge said. "There are several areas of high interest that we plan to look at when we get the detailed map.

"I've asked to be contacted the day the block counts are available."

Both Muggridge and Johnson offer hat they say is compelling evidence that indicates the Lee count came in much lower than it should have.

"Anecdotally, the evidence would seem to project closer to the (2009 estimate of 34,410) than the actual number that the Census Bureau released," Muggridge said. "Certainly anyone who's pulled onto U.S. 19 (between Leesburg and Albany) in the morning and afternoon can clearly see a significant increase in the traffic count.

"But even more telling is the fact that some 3,100 and change new single-family dwellings have been built in the county in the last 10 years. That doesn't even take into consideration the duplexes and triplexes. The single-family homes alone account for almost enough to make up the difference between the 2000 and 2010 numbers, and that's if there were only one person living in each house."

Johnson notes that numbers in her office also indicate significant growth in the county over the past decade.

"We don't have the finances or the manpower in our office to go out and beat the bushes looking for new voters to come in and register," Johnson said. "But in September of 2000 there were 10,431 active registered voters in the county. On March 1 of this year, there were 17,358 active registered voters.

"Now we do outreach with the local school system to try and get young people to register, but that increase is pretty significant. It's hard to believe we added twice as many active voters in the county than there was a population increase in the last 10 years. Once the census block map comes in, we'll be better able to tell if several neighborhoods were, as we think, severely undercounted."

Muggridge, who was recently named by Gov. Nathan Deal to the state Department of Community Affairs board, said both DCA and the Association County Commissioners of Georgia offer workshops that inform state officials on ways to appeal the census count.

"There is a process (for appeals)," Muggridge said. "We've yet to find out the ABCs of that process, but when we do we will look very closely at them.

"During the census awareness process, we put out a phone number telling citizens in the county that we'd deliver a census form to any household that didn't get one. I did a lot of those deliveries myself, and there were certain streets that we went to over and over and over. They were usually areas in Lee County that have Albany addresses and some of the newer addresses in the county."

While they await more detailed information from the Census Bureau, Lee officials are left to ponder numbers that could hurt efforts to bring new retailers to the region.

"We don't know what happened right now, but I think once we get additional information we'll see a clearer picture," Johnson said. "If things are as we believe, I think it'll be pretty obvious there was an undercount."