State population estimate for Wrangell even lower than census

The U.S. Census Bureau and Alaska Department of Labor both say Wrangell has lost population, though the numbers don’t match other statistics.

The Census Bureau last year said the community lost 242 residents, about 11%, between the 2010 and 2020 counts, going from 2,369 to 2,127 residents.

The state Labor Department said Wrangell’s population loss was even steeper, down 14% from July 2011 to July 2021 estimates, falling from 2,412 to 2,096, according to this month’s issue of Alaska Economic Trends magazine.

Census numbers and state estimates are used in multiple per-capita federal and state funding programs.

Regardless of the official count, the number of residential electrical meters in town has held steady or slightly increased over the past decade, according to the borough’s records, and the number of annual Permanent Fund dividend applications from Wrangell has slid only a couple dozen over the past few years, according to information from the Labor Department.

And by the Census Bureau’s own numbers, Wrangell gained 36 housing units between 2010 and 2019.

Perplexing to anyone looking for a vacancy in Wrangell’s tight housing market, the Census Bureau and Labor Department number for occupied homes, apartments and mobile homes in town fell by more than 100 housing units between 2010 and 2020.

A drop in occupied units doesn’t seem right, said Rod Rhoades, superintendent of Wrangell Municipal Light & Power, who pays attention to the number of residential customers and observes there are few empty housing units or homes for sale in town.

Part of the cause for Wrangell’s reported population drop may be the low self-response rate to census questionnaires in 2020 among residents by phone, online or mail — just 42%. The statewide average in Alaska was 55%, while the rate in Petersburg, Sitka, Ketchikan and Juneau ranged from 55% to 70%.

The response rate was 33% in Haines, which also lost population under the census count.

Both the Labor Department and Census Bureau numbers are estimates. Census workers don’t walk every street, check every door, and can’t require residents to complete forms. The Labor Department said it relies heavily on dividend application numbers.

“We went back and forth on Wrangell,” state demographer David Howell said last week of the department’s recent numbers for Wrangell. “Our (population) estimates are based off PFD applications,” taking into account housing statistics from the Census Bureau, he explained.

The department also looks at birth and death rates, and people leaving or moving into the state in compiling its annual estimates.

“There was probably a housing undercount in Wrangell as well,” said Eric Sandberg, who works with Howell at the Labor Department’s research and analysis division.

The department determined there was a significant housing undercount by the Census Bureau in Haines, where the 2020 census put the population at 2,080, a drop of 428 residents since 2010, or 17%, while the Labor Department estimated Haines at 2,614 residents in July 2021, a gain of 4%.

“We think they (census workers) didn’t drive all the roads” north of Haines, in the neighborhoods of Mosquito Lake and the Covenant Life Center, Howell said.

It is hard to compare 2010 to 2020 census counts because the federal numbers are reported in blocks, not individual street addresses, he said. The fact that the size and boundaries of blocks changed from 2010 to 2020 makes it harder to pinpoint any errors.

Not only is it hard to compare block-by-block counts from one census to the next, it’s hard for communities to appeal the number.

The U.S. Census Bureau has a Count Question Resolution procedure where states and municipalities can ask for a review of the numbers. It’s not possible to get a full recount, according to the rules, but a community could argue that specific housing units were erroneously excluded from the count, though that would be difficult without an address-by-address listing from the bureau.

“(The borough) must provide documentation … indicating that the Census Bureau missed housing, not simply missed population” in the count, according to the dispute resolution fact sheet.

Any challenge would be a long, drawn out, expensive process with an uncertain outcome, said Jeff Good, Wrangell borough manager. Though the borough disagrees with the census number, it is going to accept it, Good said.

Last year, when the Census Bureau released its numbers, the borough questioned whether the disruption in the spring 2020 count by the pandemic hurt the effort and accuracy in Wrangell.

“Was everybody really counted,” or did the door-to-door census takers who returned later in the summer miss people or find some unresponsive to the data-collection effort, Carol Rushmore, Wrangell’s economic development director, said last year.

Unlike Wrangell, the Haines Borough plans to appeal the census count. Haines has until June 2023 to file.

The count not only affects the federal government’s funding calculations but also private-sector decisions, such as whether to open a business in Haines or which services to provide the community, Borough Manager Annette Kreitzer told the Chilkat Valley News last week.

Population is a factor in the payment-in-lieu-of-taxes program, which compensates local governments for loss of property taxes from federal lands, said Jila Stuart, the Haines Borough chief fiscal officer.

If the Census Bureau finds an error, it won’t change its official number but could issue a notice of errata, including updated housing and population counts, which will be used for federal funding calculations and as the basis for later population estimates.


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