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OPINION

Making it count

Tim Croft
tcroft@starfl.com

A few county officials last week suggested pulling up 300 buses full of inmates on April 1 to be ready for the census.

They were joking … I at least I am pretty sure.

But…

I will acknowledge having the aptitude for math of a second-grader.

Actually, most second-graders are likely able to add and subtract with more efficiency than I.

It must be one of those right-brain/left-brain things except I have never figured out how to either side properly, so, toss out that theory.

But I do know this; it doesn’t take a mathematician to know that this year’s census is critical for Gulf County.

A recent press conference in Bay County tossed a spotlight on the broad picture.

According to Florida TaxWatch, a government watchdog group, the stakes of the census could not be higher.

Florida, the organization announced as findings from a recent study, fails to receive its fair share of federal funding and one of the primary reasons is inaccuracy with the census.

In a state that expects to grow by another 3 million people or so in the next few years that seems some major miscalculating.

Census counts arrive 10 years and effectively establish the pecking order for federal funding for the ensuing decade.

An accurate count could mean an additional $30 billion in federal funds for the state each year not to mention two or three additional congressional seats, according to TaxWatch.

Toss into that mix Hurricane Michael and the displacement it caused.

Plus, this year is the first time the census will be taken primarily online.

By April 1, residents will have received Census Bureau mail detailing methods for response.

If after four notices the bureau has received no completed survey, a representative would then physically visit the residence to complete one.

So, while the BOCC laughed in suggesting the 300 buses of inmates, the truth behind the joke is no, well, joke.

For 10 years the county population has been counted in excess of 16,000 even though the actual population of those not behind bars was somewhere in the area of 13,000.

Those extra 3,000 or so were the inmates housed at Gulf Correctional, the Annex and Forestry Camp.

And despite legal issues pertaining to counting inmates in the county population (litigation over using inmates for redistricting has resulted in differing opinions, leaving the county with single-member districts, a column for another day), those inmates have inflated the county’s population.

They will again, but not nearly at the level of recent years, as Warden Scott Payne underscored again last week.

Try a third as much.

The Annex, Payne has already announced, will not reopen under the current Department of Corrections plan.

That, according to county officials, represents a loss of about 10 percent of the inmate population.

As of last week, there were just over 1,000 inmates at the rebuilding GCI and Forestry Camp and two secure units which would house additional inmates is likely not to be ready until at least July.

As troubling is that the DOC is one of the largest, if not largest, employer in the county and currently has more than 40 vacancies in Gulf, a number that increases to more than 60 when accounting for those on extended leave or retiring.

So let’s add all this up.

School enrollment is holding steady, but its transience remains unknown and district projections are for a slide slightly next school year.

The lack of housing, particularly on the south end of the county, is a drag on sustainability, let alone economic development.

A post-storm survey found that nearly 1 in 5 of those living in the county were renters, ineligible for most FEMA and insurance assistance and, in many cases, displaced.

No, the answer will not be the census.

There is no panacea for what the community, the county, the region requires; there are, to borrow the cliché, so many moving parts.

But one place to start, especially as federal disaster relief grant funds are due to begin to flow in earnest this year, is how the federal pie is sliced.

And unless all hands are, literally, present and accounted for in Gulf County, chances are that what will be left are crumbs.

During the next 10 years, as the county recovers from a devastating Category 5 hurricane, sustainability is not fueled by crumbs.

We count for more.