Down for the count

Estimated population decrease is not right, officials say

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The U.S. Census Bureau estimates Steamboat Springs' population has declined by about 500 people since 2000.

In its list of annual population estimates released June 30, the Census estimated Steamboat Springs had 9,344 people in 2004, down from 9,815 in the official 2000 Census, a drop of 4.8 percent. Although the city's population has declined, the Census Bureau estimates Routt County's population has increased from 19,831 to 21,012, a 5.9 percent increase.

Many city and county officials say the Census Bureau's numbers just don't add up. They point to other sets of data -- such as building permits, the school district's recent demographic study and the population estimates from the Colorado Demography Office -- that indicate the city's population is on the rise.

"I certainly don't know any reason why we would have (a decrease)," Deputy City Manager Wendy DuBord said. "All other indicators show we have been increasing: building permits, recreational activities and just plain anecdotal information on how busy things are."

According to the Census estimates, Steamboat's population has declined each year since 2000. During the same time frame, Routt County Building Department rec--ords show that more than 900 units were built within the city limits.

The Colorado Demography Of----fice, a division of the Department of Local Affairs, reports population has increased in Steamboat. From 2000 to 2003, the city's population went from 9,815 to 10,607, the office estimates.

State Demographer Eliz--abeth Garner said the U.S. Census Bureau and the Colo--rado Demography Office have different methodologies for calculating population totals. The state uses the Census Bureau's thorough and detailed counts of 2000, but it uses its own criteria to estimate populations in the following years until the next decennial Census in 2010.

The state office uses state and local municipality numbers and is in contact with local governments annually and sometimes even quarterly, Garner said.

"We are a little closer to the data source," Garner said. "Local governments provide information and feedback on numbers. I do believe we have a better handle on what is really happening."

The Census Bureau's lead demographers for Steamboat's region were unavailable for comment.

Scott Ford, with Colorado Mountain College's Small Bus--iness Resource Center, said that the population estimates done every 10 years by the U.S. Census Bureau -- in which every household is required to fill out a survey and the Census Bureau follows up with those who do not -- is a close estimate.

"The final population is a pretty darn good statistical guess, at least as good as humans can get," Ford said. "The only thing that would work better is if they put microchips in us and track us."

In between the decennial census, the Census Bureau conducts population estimates for states, counties and cities. The agency does so using data about births and deaths obtained from the state's vital statistics department and migration data off of IRS files. Because addresses are listed on tax returns, the Census Bureau knows whether someone leaves or moves to an area and then factors the net increase or decrease into population estimates.

Ford said the 500-person decrease the U.S. Census estimates in Steamboat during the past five years is a fuzzy number at the edge of the city's total population of about 10,000.

"At the end of the day, how accurate does this number have to be?" Ford said.

Ford also said that census estimates do not factor in the increase in second-home owners and the increasing amount of time they spend in Steamboat. Second-home owners, Ford said, contribute to the public perception that Steamboat is growing.

Garner said the state demography office uses birth and death rates and looks at building permits and certificates of occupancy within cities to estimate populations. Senior State Demographer Jim Westkott said school enrollment and job data also are factored.

"The main difference is (the Census Bureau) is in Washington," Westkott said. "At least we are a little closer. If there are any problems with the data, we are a little more likely to find out about it than they are."

Garner said the demography office tries to avoid counting second-home owners as residents, instead factoring them into the population counts where their primary residences are. The state office also applies the vacancy rates gathered from the comprehensive 2000 Census to its yearly estimates and double checks the number with local governments, she said.

Westkott said Colorado's resort communities were at a disadvantage from the start of the comprehensive 2000 census data. That data was collected in April and then followed up on in May, both months when people leave Colorado ski towns.

"The state of Colorado does get counted on the low end of the census because of that," Westkott said.

"(The census) is not perfect, and it is least perfect in resorts," he said.

Addresses used in filing tax returns are considered primary residences. Thus, the census does not take into account the increasing time second-home owners spend in resort communities.

"Florida has that problem," Westkott said. "People live down there all the time and are still filing their income tax in New York."

Routt County Planner John Eastman, who is designated to deal with population numbers for the county, also noted that the state numbers are more accurate than the U.S. Census, and he said he fills out forms for the state estimates every year.

He also said the federal estimates on a year-to-year basis do not factor in the unique dynamics of mountain resort towns.

Eastman said that although all other data do not indicate the population in Steamboat is decreasing, its demographics are changing and are different from the national average.

From 1990 to 2000, the city saw its largest percentage increases in the 44 to 55 age range and the 20 to 25 age range.

The city had a 250 percent increase in the baby-boomer demographic (ages 44 to 55), which was five times the national average.

Although the baby-boomer and twentysomethings populations are increasing beyond the national average, Steamboat has fewer people in the 26 to 44 age range than the national average.

What those statistics show, Eastman said, is that people are leaving Steamboat when it's time to start families. He points to the in-depth demographic report done recently by the Steamboat Springs School District, which showed its school enrollment should stay steady.

"Those (ages) 25 to 40, some of them leave, and the new 20-year-olds come to replace them," he said.

Eastman said that because all school populations have remained fairly unchanged, he does not see a great migration of Steamboat families moving out of the county.

Most of the county's growth is the result of $500,000 to $1.5 million second homes, not $250,000 to $500,000 affordable homes for working families moving out of Steamboat, Eastman said.

"There has always been a number of worker bees living in Hayden and Oak Creek since the ski area opened," Eastman said. "That hasn't changed in 30 years."

-- To reach Christine Metz call 871-4229

or e-mail cmetz@steamboatpilot.com

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