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Here, there -- but not in the mail

The Tampa Bay area lags behind in returning census forms. But census officials say it's too early to worry.


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 30, 2000

TAMPA -- They're under that stack of bills on the counter. They're in the trash can, discarded with the junk mail. Or, they're on the kitchen table, right next to that not-yet-mailed-in tax return.

Wherever they are, most of those Census Bureau forms sent to Tampa Bay residents two weeks ago have not been returned.

Just under 43 percent of residents in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties have sent the forms back. That combined average is far lower than the 71 percent return rate the Census Bureau expects the area to have by the time the count is concluded at the end of the year. And it is lower than the national return rate of 46 percent.

Hillsborough's 34 percent return rate, and the inability of local officials to hire enough people to do door-to-door counts, has prompted the House of Representatives Subcommittee on the Census, chaired by Rep. Dan Miller, R-Bradenton, to look into how the count is being handled locally.

Rep. Jim Davis, D-Tampa, said he is concerned that the census has gotten off to such a slow start in Hillsborough.

"We clearly have some problems to solve," Davis said.

The census, conducted every 10 years, helps determine how federal dollars are spent. Missing residents can mean missing out on millions.

Government officials in Hillsborough, for example, have said the county lost $170-million after the 1990 census, when an estimated 20,000 people were missed.

"This is worth a lot of money," Davis said. "The stakes are extremely high."

That's why Congress set aside $170-million for the Census Bureau to advertise its efforts. So far, there has been little bang for all those bucks. Yet census officials seem unconcerned.

"It's still too early to make a full assessment," said Lance Robertson, spokesman for the Census Bureau's southeast region, which is based in Atlanta and includes Florida.

The Census Bureau's failure so far to get people to mail in the forms adds to a challenge no private company would want: finding thousands of workers in Florida's red-hot economy.

As many as 8,000 workers could be hired to do door-to-door counts at the homes of those who did not return the forms. The more forms the Census Bureau receives, the fewer workers it will have to hire.

Hiring workers, as many human resources officials know, is particularly tough these days. Florida's unemployment rate has hovered right at 4 percent, and the biggest Tampa Bay counties have rates that are closer to 3 percent.

The jobs with the Census Bureau are part time, lasting anywhere from six to eight weeks. To compete with other employers, the Census Bureau offers its workers good pay: anywhere from $9 per hour in Citrus County to $11 per hour in Hillsborough.

That hasn't helped much yet in the bureau's Tampa office, which has hired only 200 of the 900 workers it expects to hire, said Herb Nobles, who himself has served as the office's manager for just two weeks.

Robertson said the media plays a crucial role in stirring interest in the census. But Harry Costello, Florida general manager for the marketing firm of Hill and Knowlton, said the Census Bureau should be doing a better job of selling its story to the media.

"We had the Y2K thing," said Costello, a former business editor at the Tampa Tribune. "Nothing happened, but we all knew about what companies were doing. The Census Bureau needs to turn to the media and say, "You guys have to drive this.' "

The Census Bureau did send out a news release asking news organizations to remind people to send in their census forms at the same time they tell them about the "spring forward" time change on Sunday.

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