Bluffton officials believe the 2010 U.S. Census undercounted the town's population by as much as 20 percent, and the town staff is gathering data for a possible appeal.
According to the Census Bureau, Bluffton had 12,530 residents on April 1, 2010, compared to 1,275 in 2000. Town officials believe the actual 2010 figure is closer to 15,000, a discrepancy that could affect the town's share of state funding.
"Every revenue source from federal or state governments always has a population component in the funding formulas," town manager Anthony Barrett said, adding that there is "almost always an undercount with the census."
Indeed, the Census Bureau's 2008 estimate for Bluffton was initially off by 186 percent. The agency reported 4,312 residents in 2008, but the town appealed in 2009, and the official 2008 estimate was increased to 12,333. In that case, the town asserted that census estimates did not include residents in areas annexed between 2003 and 2008.
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The town paid for a special U.S. Census in 2005 that put the population at 4,885 residents.
Mayor Lisa Sulka is not involved in the internal review yet, but said an accurate census can have a significant effect on town finances.
"It's very important to us, especially with all the other cuts that are taking place," she said. "We are trying to maintain and keep services where they are. We just want our fair share."
As of 2009, the town received about $35 per resident, per year in state funding. Town officials were unable Tuesday to provide more recent funding data. Sulka said such funding goes into the general fund and pays for things like law enforcement and parks, among other things.
The town arrived at the 15,000 population estimate after reviewing pre-2010 census data, the Buck Island and Simmonsville annexation study and a new residential trash service, according to Aubrie Giroux, the town's senior policy analyst. She attributed the difference between the town's 2010 estimate and the government's figure to household response rates on census forms.
Municipalities have until June 1, 2013, to appeal results of the 2010 Census through the Count Question Resolution process. Municipalities must provide ample documentation during an appeal, often including maps and other data, said Dora Durante, chief of the Census Bureau's resolution program.
To date, 143 municipalities across the country have challenged the 2010 Census results. Of those, 73 are pending, and 41 resulted in changes.
In South Carolina, the city of Columbia's appeal resulted in no changes. A challenge by the town of Edisto Beach in Colleton County resulted in minor changes to official data, but not its population, town administrator Iris Hill said.
Giroux says she won't have specifics about a possible appeal until Bluffton's in-house analysis is done later this year. If the town decides to file a challenge, it will likely take "several months" before the Census Bureau issues a ruling, she said.