Missoula gears up for 2020 Census count with committee formation

The 2020 Census count will determine the federal funding received by local governments and agencies for a number of programs, from Pell Grants to food assistance and local highways, and possibly a second Montana seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

Missoula took the initial step Thursday to form a Complete Count Committee ahead of the 2020 U.S. Census, a move aimed at ensuring a full population count occurs next spring.

The count determines the federal funding received by local governments and agencies for a number of programs, from Pell Grants to food assistance and local highways, and possibly a second Montana seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“The Census is remarkably important,” said Dean French, CEO of Community Medical Center. “As Montana grows – as Missoula grows – how do we make sure we get it on the record and maybe get an extra seat in the House of Representatives?”

The committee itself will be in place later this year and will strive to connect with hard-to-reach populations. That includes low-income residents, children under age 5, migrant workers, immigrants, rural residents and university students.

“That’s our primary goal this time around,” said Karen Murphy, a member of the U.S. Census Bureau-Denver Region. “We want to get everyone out there and get a proper enumeration.”

Montana as a whole has had successes and challenges with its Census counts. In 2000, the state undercounted its population by nearly 14,000 residents, or roughly half the city of Helena.

That cost Montana a large sum of federal funding.

“We live with those numbers for 10 years,” said Murphy. “It’s a short-term burst of effort to get out there and get that count, because we do live with those numbers. Over a decade, that’s almost $20,000 for each Montana resident.”

The state made a more strident effort to count its entire population in 2010, resulting in a slight overcount. More than $2 billion in federal funding comes to Montana based upon its Census results, and the numbers matter.

They also matter when it comes to representation in Washington, D.C. Next year’s results could net Montana a second seat in the House of Representatives. While that will depend in part on the population count in other states, those with an eye on the 2020 results like Montana’s chances.

Montana lost its second seat in the House back in 1990.

“We are poised in this Census to potentially regain that seat,” said Murphy. “It’s imperative we count everyone who’s living in the state of Montana. If we do regain that seat in 2020, we’ll be the first state that lost a seat but subsequently regained it.”

On Thursday morning at Community Medical Center, city and county leaders, school officials, nonprofit heads and local business leaders took the first step in creating a Complete Count Committee, something the cities of Billings, Bozeman and Great Falls have already done.

City and county government will likely oversee the local committee as Missoula works to get a full count of its population. With funding at stake for a number of valuable programs, it’s in everyone’s interest to get a full and accurate count, Missoula Mayor John Engen said.

“We live in a world where there’s a trickle effect,” he said. “The number of people who show up in Missoula and Montana on the Census cause things to trickle, mostly federal dollars, and most of those federal dollars tend to help the most vulnerable people in our community.”

In 2007, Missoula County received more than $130 million in federal Census-based funding. On the city side, that included $8 million in federal Pell Grants, $2.4 million for Head Start and $1.3 million for transit grants.

The county also received $57 million for the Medical Assistance Program, $32 million for highway planning and construction, and $8 million for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

All those dollars are based upon the population count.

“There’s a question of congressional representation and a question of federal funding for infrastructure,” said University of Montana President Seth Bodnar.

“There’s also lots of federal programs that impact higher education. I could list 15 to 20 programs in which we rely on federal funding, and part of that is determined by the number of people here in our state. It’s a really important process.”