Nelsonville Is Challenging Its New Census Count Under An Obscure State Law

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — The city of Nelsonville isn’t happy with the results of the 2020 Census, so it’s going to do its own count.

A mural painted on the side of Adventure Pro Outdoors is seen in Nelsonville , Ohio, on Saturday, July 17, 2021. [Joseph Scheller | WOUB]
A mural painted on the side of Adventure Pro Outdoors is seen in Nelsonville, Ohio, on Saturday, July 17, 2021. [Joseph Scheller | WOUB]
The new Census numbers show the city lost 780 residents since 2010, and its population is now 4,612 — or at least it was when the count was done last year.

This means Nelsonville is no longer a city but a village, because 5,000 residents is the dividing line between the two under state law.

The Census Bureau has no provision for doing recounts if a community thinks its numbers are off, according to a spokeswoman for the bureau. There is an appeal process under which the bureau might adjust a population count if it finds a processing error, but it’s a longshot.

So, Nelsonville is pretty much stuck with the new population count for Census purposes.

However, the city is taking advantage of an obscure state law that allows it to challenge the Census count for purposes of determining whether it’s a city or village.

The law from 1953 allows a city at risk of returning to village status because of a new Census to conduct its own population count, called an enumeration. A city has 15 days to complete this recount once it makes the decision to move forward, which the Nelsonville City Council did Monday night.

The city then submits its count to the secretary of state.

The law is pretty clear up to this point. But it’s not clear whether the secretary has to accept the city’s number instead of the Census Bureau’s.

The law says:

“When the result of any federal census or an enumeration … is officially made known to the secretary of state, he forthwith shall issue a proclamation, stating the names of all municipal corporations having a population of five thousand or more, and the names of all municipal corporations having a population of less than five thousand, together with the population of all such municipal corporations.”

The key word in that passage is “or.” It doesn’t seem to make clear whether the Census or the community’s own enumeration takes precedence.

A spokesman for Secretary of State Frank LaRose’s office said it was too soon to say which number the secretary would choose.

Meanwhile, the city, or village, of Nelsonville is now racing against the clock to complete its count. City officials have put out a call to volunteers to help knock on doors and take down names.

The population count matters because state grants for basic infrastructure like water, sewer and streets are based in large part on population, said Nelsonville City Auditor Taylor Sappington.

Sappington is overseeing the recount.

“Less population results in less money,” he said.

Nelsonville relies heavily on these grants to fund its infrastructure projects. The city received millions of dollars for its sewer plant and $2 million for its overhaul of Canal Street, which is the main thoroughfare.

“The state is the primary funder for almost all our grants,” Sappington said.

And it’s not just grants to the city that are affected but also grants to organizations within the city that are based on population. However, even if the city’s recount comes up with a higher population number, it’s not clear whether a grant funder will rely on that figure or the official Census number.

Sappington said he and other city officials are operating without any precedent to guide them on this challenge because they haven’t found any other examples of a city that has done a recount under the state law.

“There is not a ton of precedent for it, there’s not even suggestions from the state about how to go about it. So we’re just going to kind of build the aircraft as we’re flying. Because we’re just going to go out there, we’re going to try to re-enumerate, recount the entire city. Get to 5,000, turn it into the state and say ‘We got it done.'”