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Census forecast for region grim

ST. CLAIRSVILLE — The chairman of Belmont County’s Census Committee gave a grim forecast about local Census results: With fewer than 30 days remaining for residents to register, many areas may be undercounted and the county seat stands at risk of losing its city status.

The Rev. William Webster of the Grace Presbyterian Church in Martins Ferry and his fellow Census committee members have been active, but the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic and turmoil and distrust in the government has stymied efforts to count every resident in Belmont County.

“I feel bad. I feel like I’m letting the county down,” Webster said during his report to the Belmont County board of commissioners Wednesday.

“As we wind down, the numbers aren’t as high as they should be,” he said. “I’m worried that we’re not going to get the numbers that we need. … The increase has been not very significant.”

He voiced concerns that this could mean a loss of revenue for schools, fire departments, law enforcement and other agencies.

Webster said he believes overall numbers will be similar to Belmont County’s 2010 turnout. As of August, the county’s response rate was 64.2 percent compared to the national response rate of 65 percent, but the State of Ohio’s response rate is 69.1 percent.

“I was hoping to have a lot higher numbers,” he said, adding that as they prepared for the Census, his ambitions were for a response of close to 100 percent.

“The pandemic has crippled our response. It’s slowed the way we could do things,” he said. “Instead of being able to go out and meet with people, all of the events where I’ve been invited and could speak have been cancelled.”

“We’ll find out in another couple weeks, really find out the end of September,” he said.

“I think there are a couple (communities) that are going to be hit really hard,” Webster said. “St. Clairsville, I think, will get hit hard.”

The city’s response rate is about 73 percent, four percent less than the rate around this time last Census. Projections from the U.S. Census Department have placed the St. Clairsville close to the 5,000-resident threshold needed to be classified as a city.

“If that’s accurate, and they don’t get a 100-percent response rate, then the numbers’ not going to come in to show that they are over 5,000 and they wont be considered a city, and they’ll lose hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he said. “It’s going to be close.”

He also said Bellaire’s response rate has been low, pointing out that community’s loss of city status as a result of the last Census.

Webster believes Martins Ferry will likely retain its city status.

“I’m nervous for St. Clairsville,” Webster said. “We…come Dec. 31 may only have one city in Belmont County.”

St. Clairsville planning and Zoning Administrator Tom Murphy has spearheaded the effort to count all city residents. He is still hoping the enumerators will bring in additional numbers. He said last Census, the enumerators across Ohio got information from 17 percent more residents.

“We’re going to have to wait till the final numbers are in, but I always try to keep a positive attitude,” Murphy said. Should St. Clairsville lose its city status, Murphy said the city will continue its ongoing and planned projects. He said area businesses are recovering from the pandemic.

“No matter what happens, we just have to continue on forward,” Murphy said. He added he is available to assist anyone have difficulty completing the Census form. He can be reached at 740-695-1953.

“That goes for anyone in the county. I want to help out the entire county if I can,” Murphy said.

Webster said fear and suspicion are present in the public. Others mistakenly believe filling out an absentee ballot also registers them with the Census.

“People are fearful,” he said. “These are some of the obstacles we’re running into.”

He said enumerators are now active in Belmont County, visiting areas that have not been responsive. Webster is concerned residents may be uncooperative with people showing up at their door with masks.

“This has been a very difficult time to conduct the Census,” Commissioner J.P. Dutton said. “There’s still some time, obviously, for some improvement.”

“To do what you’ve done, and what the group has done, to this point, we commend you for that,” Commissioner Josh Meyer said.

The official Census numbers will be announced Dec. 31.

People can respond online at www.2020census.gov, by phone at 1-844-330-2020 or by using the paper form in the packet.

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