By Ralph Ellis
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Milton has invited residents to guess the city’s population. The winner will be the person who comes closest to the number the Census Bureau announces later this year.
Milton has played this guessing game a long time. The city says it has almost twice as many people as the Census Bureau -- 30,180 to 15,156. Other numbers are bouncing between those two extremes.
When the city was created in December 2006, the Georgia Reapportionment Services Office extrapolated a population from the 2000 census of unincorporated areas.
This year’s census will allow Milton -- along with four other metro cities formed since the 2000 census -- to base their population on an actual headcount. Milton has the sharpest divergence from the Census Bureau.
“You’d think it would be a very easy number to reach,” Milton Mayor Joe Lockwood said. “But when you think about counting, it’s a tough deal. Other than going door to door, how do you get it?”
It's a big deal for all the new cities because a headcount can affect how much money each will receive in areas such as sales tax revenue and grants.
Milton got a low number because the city didn’t get credit for the rapid population growth between 2000 and incorporation in 2006, City Councilwoman Karen Thurman said.
“All our growth has been in the last 10 years,” Thurman said. “If they didn’t take that into account, that would explain why” the population count was low.
Clearly the Census Bureau is off, as reflected in the fact that Milton has 17,258 registered voters. The city Web site says the population is about 20,000, and the city comprehensive plan puts it at 24,000.
The census is important to a city’s bottom line. City Manager Chris Lagerbloom said Milton was shortchanged in local option sales tax revenue, which is based on the census population.
“It will be nice to have a true and accurate estimate of our population because of that,” he said.
Lagerbloom didn’t know how much the perceived undercount hurt Milton in grants and state funding. Some funding automatically plugs in the census figure, and other grants ask for updated estimates, he said. Sometimes the lower figure benefited the city in obtaining grants.
He said Milton didn't formally challenge the population because officials were busy getting the new city up and running, and the 2010 census was only a few years away.
Milton’s self-proclaimed population of 30,180 was researched by Georgia Power’s economic development department in 2008. The utility used a combination of census, building and Postal Service data to count households, said Michele Macintosh-Ross, a Milton planner.
Planners multiplied 11,500 households by 2.7 people per household to obtain 31,050. To account for vacancies, the number was rounded down to 30,180.
Genora Barber, an information services officer for the Census Bureau, said she didn't know anything about Milton's method of estimating, but she noted the agency has never counted Milton much higher than 15,000. The 2008 estimate was 15,156.
"Everybody thinks we undercount them," Barber said. "That's always the cry."
The Census Bureau regularly updates cities’ populations using data such as births, deaths and figures from the Internal Revenue Service and public schools, said Doug Bachtel, a University of Georgia demographer.
“They put it into a magic box and shake it up and come up with an estimate,” he said.
Among the cities formed since 2000, Sandy Springs and Dunwoody started out with pretty good ideas of their populations because, pre-cityhood, they were Census Designated Places, said Jim Skinner, a planner in the research division for the Atlanta Regional Commission. Those are populous, unincorporated spots that are statistical counterparts to incorporated cities.
“There’s a lot more waffle for what the north Fulton cities should be,” he said.
None of the new cities has a number as squishy as Milton, Skinner said. The ARC estimates Milton’s 2009 population was 28,402 -- close to the city’s guess.
To a lesser degree, Johns Creek and Sandy Springs have a discrepancy between their own population estimates and the Census Bureau's 2008 estimate. That’s why both cities are working to get every head counted.
“The census only occurs once every 10 years,” Johns Creek Mayor Mike Bodker said. “If your numbers are wrong, you have to live with it a very long period of time.”
Meanwhile, Milton city hall workers prepare to do their own count -- of the entries in the population guessing game.
Milton residents can participate in the town's census guess contest by going to www.cityofmiltonga.us/census/guess.html. A prize has yet to be announced.