Estimates show Austin with slight decline

Published 10:08 am Thursday, July 2, 2009

Austin saw a slight population decline in the last year, according to recently released U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

However, city officials said they are not overly concerned with estimates and are focusing more on making sure everyone in town gets counted during the 2010 census.

The city had an estimated 23,800 people as of July 1, 2008, according to data released publicly Wednesday. That’s a decline of 93 people, or about 0.4 percent, in the last year. Since 2000, Austin’s population has declined by an estimated 2.2 percent.

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City administrator Jim Hurm said the estimates point to a larger, worrisome trend of rural areas losing population and support.

“Maybe the point (the data) makes is that rural Minnesota has been at a disadvantage for many, many decades,” Hurm said, noting a decline in local government aid and other resources for smaller towns.

Though Hurm said this is an alarming trend, he said he wouldn’t put too much stock into estimates.

“Does that mean we have 93 less people than a year ago? Who knows,” he said. “If you want accuracy, you do a darn good job with the census in April 2010.”

The city will put together a “complete count” committee, Hurm said, and will work diligently to get everyone counted for the census.

Mayor Tom Stiehm said it is essential to get an accurate, full count.

“We got a census coming up,” he said. “We’ll get everyone counted.”

Though the new numbers are estimates, Stiehm said any population decline is troublesome. He said a decline has been noticeable since the 1960s and 70s in Austin.

“What we want is growth,” the mayor said. “Any loss is significant.”

Census bureau spokesman Robert Bernstein said the city numbers are derived from county-wide counts, which are done in March. Those tallies look at birth and death records, as well as tax records.

To get to the city level, the bureau breaks counties down by looking at various property data, such as building permits, Bernstein said.

Demographer Greg Harper said the accuracy of the estimates really depend on a city’s size. A larger city can usually be estimated within 4 percent of an actual census tally, but smaller towns often are harder to estimate. Harper said this is because even a minor counting error in a small town can lead to an estimate being percentage points off.

Though the estimates are largely accurate, they still do not have a substantial policy effect, League of Minnesota Cities policy analysis manager Rachel Walker said.

When it comes to levy limits and LGA funding, Walker said official census counts and state demographer data are what counts when establishing different guidelines.

“It gives cities another way to look at where they’re going,” she said, “but census estimates don’t really have a (policy) impact.”

Like the Austin officials, Walker said the emphasis is on the upcoming 2010 census. She said the league has been working to inform cities on what they can do to ensure accurate counts.

In addition to impacting LGA and levy limits, Minnesota’s 2010 census results could impact the U.S. Congress — the state could lose a U.S. House seat depending on how the count shakes out. Minnesota grew by about 38,000 people since 2007 and by about 301,000 since 2000, according to the estimates.