Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Baffling Numbers Put Bernalillo Grant Funds at Risk


For Bernalillo, 10,000 is a magic number that could be expensive if the town can't shrink it.

It also has town officials scrambling to straighten out the U.S. Census Bureau after it may have used county growth data provided by Rio Rancho to come up with a new population estimate for the Sandoval County seat. Now, at least, the Census Bureau knows how to contact the town rather than trying to reach a mysterious figure in Rio Rancho, Planning and Zoning Director Stephanie Shumsky told the Signpost.

"I called the Census, and they were like, "Who are you?" Shumsky said. "I finally gave them enough information on the town to track us down. They had someone at Rio Rancho named Nancy as the contact for the town of Bernalillo."

That name was not familiar to anyone currently at the Rio Rancho Planning Department, she added.

The immediate concern is that with 10,000 residents, Bernalillo won’t be eligible for annual state Small Cities Assistance Program grants. Those grants have funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars to the town.

A 10,000-person population would require districting the town council, a costly effort raising even more issues, although that may wait for the next decennial census.

How Many People Live Here?

For the record, the 2020 census showed Bernalillo with a population of 8,977. Between each 10-year national count, the Census Bureau uses data such as building permits to estimate populations. On July 1, 2022, it pegged Bernalillo at 9,898 residents.

Now, the current estimate is 10,456, a number the town is challenging with fresh data sent to the bureau on July 13.

Where that number comes from is not clear as the town only issued 30 residential building permits in the past year, placed a handful of mobile homes and saw no apartment construction in 2021 and 2022.

"It's become a knot, and I don't even think I've figured it all out," Shumsky said. "It should have been based on actual data they were getting from us every year."

Except the Census Bureau stopped getting that data directly from the town. The mix-up apparently involves the town dropping the position of building inspector and turning those duties over to the state Construction Industries Commission.

The CID in turn may have been reporting only countywide data to the bureau, and the person handling that has retired.

Bernalillo Mayor Jack Torres said he only learned of the new estimate when dues for town membership in the Mid-Region Council of Governments went up.

"If we tip 10,000, it's not millions of dollars more, but it's important to us," he said. The most recent small-cities grant was $90,000 and has been as high as $300,000, he added.

Torres said he has an unofficial legal opinion that the town only has to hire a demographer to help district the five town council seats after a formal census, not annual estimates. While he said he understands the value of districts, small-town mayors he's talked to found districts came with complications.

"The biggest hurdle is that there are not hordes of people wanting to run for office," he added. Bernalillo town councilors, while the run for numbered positions, are elected at-large, as is the mayor.

"I serve the whole town and do not have a problem with that," Torres said.


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