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News Macon abandons Census probe

After months of inquiries, Macon County officials have opted not to contest the Census results revealed earlier this year, after the findings revealed that Macon was no longer the fastest growing county in Western North Carolina.

Last May, officials expressed their skepticism of the findings and their intent to re-examine those figures with federal workers. County Manager Jack Horton noted that the preliminary population figures released last year proved lower than the final count of the Census. “We thought that was unusual, given the fact that most of the preliminary estimates in other counties actually ended up being lower than what their final count was,” said Horton at the time.

In fact, what had officials in Macon County so skeptical was that it had a better participation rate in last year’s census than it did in 2000. Last September, Chairman Ronnie Beale presented County Planner Derek Roland and Rhonda Blanton, of Healthy Carolinians, with a plaque on behalf of the county and the Census Bureau in recognition of their efforts in increasing countywide participation. The response rate saw an increase of 23 percent from the previous census.

But all the Census hoopla seems to be dying down. In recent weeks, officials have found that scrutinizing the findings just won’t be worth the trouble.

“We found it was extremely difficult to challenge the numbers,” Horton said. “We spoke with folks at the federal level and found that a small percentage of appeals by counties in the U.S. were successful in being considered. The odds would be stacked against us.”

According to Horton, in order for a county to successfully dispute U.S. Census Bureau findings, county officials must conduct a second census and present the county’s findings to challenge the initial figures. “We just don’t have the manpower, time or resources to do that,” Horton said.

Still, Horton feels that some leaves were left unturned, such as seasonal residents and residents near the county lines that may have been overlooked. But it may not be that different than the current census numbers. “Even if we were to do a re-count, it is likely the figures wouldn’t make a significant difference,” he said.

At that time, the Macon County Board of Commissioners released initial census population results numbering 36,667— a 23 percent increase from 2000’s count of 29,811 county residents.

To the dismay of county officials, final census figures indicate a mere 14 percent population growth, with 33,922 residents counted in 2010. Jackson County on the other hand saw nearly a 22 percent rise within the last decade, reaching 40,271.

“I’m still surprised Jackson went up in its final count the way it did,” remarked Horton. “The reason, we found out was because [Census workers] counted Western [WCU] students and enrollment has went up in recent years.”

In May, Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten expressed satisfaction with the findings and said that Western Carolina University had a substantial impact on the local economy and population. “We saw a big increase ... Cullowhee is now our most populated city.”

According to Roland, he still plans to meet with federal census workers in the coming months to further explore what was examined last year at the county’s borders, even though there are no longer any plans to dispute the final count.

“We’re still not convinced that the numbers are as accurate as they should be ... It’s still puzzling that the figures exceeded projections in every other county except for Macon,” said Horton.

But what’s the big deal about population growth? It determines the amount of money allotted to a county to fund public establishments like hospitals and schools. It also determines the percentage of state shared sales taxes that is set for the county and towns therein.

“If the census figures had probably come equal to, or greater than the predicted numbers, I don’t think we would be questioning it this much,” said Horton last May. “Since it came in lower, which is contrary to what the other counties are experiencing, we felt like we should take a closer look at how they came up with the number they came up with.”

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