OKANOGAN — Officials say they don’t know why Okanogan County has one of the lowest return rates for census forms in the state. Only 48 percent of households in the county have mailed back the form.
But if the trend continues, the state’s biggest county could be under-represented and under-funded for the next 10 years, said Duane Wakan, a tribal partnership specialist for the U.S. Census Bureau.
“We’re diverse, which I think is great. It’s our strength. But in this case, it might be an Achilles’ heel,” Wakan said.
Census figures determine the number of congressional seats each state gets, and contributes to the number of federal jobs in an area, and funding given to tribes, counties and cities, he said.
He said for every person counted, local governments will receive an average of $1,400 back, every year, over the next 10 years.
All four counties in North Central Washington are below the state average return rate of 67 percent, and national average of 66 percent. But by Tuesday, Chelan, Douglas and Grant counties all topped 60 percent return rate.
Okanogan County’s 48 percent was the third-lowest return rate in the state. Only Pend Oreille County with 47 percent and San Juan County with 44 percent were lower.
Okanogan County Commissioner Bud Hover said part of the issue could be his county’s vast size. “It’s spread out over a wide area. Access is pretty rough going. It just might be a lack of will by the census-takers,” he said.
He also noted that many of the addresses in his county belong to absentee owners. Roughly 70 percent of the Methow Valley’s property tax statements are mailed to an address outside the county, he said. “There’s an awful lot of land owned here by people planning on moving here later, or used as recreational property,” he said.
Wakan suggested some people might not fill out their form because they aren’t U.S. citizens or they don’t speak English. Others maybe didn’t receive a form. “Fear of government, or maybe the mood of the political climate, may contribute to some of the resistance in filling out the form,” he said.
Whatever the reason, there’s still time.
Wakan said residents who don’t have a form can call a toll-free number and request one. And for those who simply procrastinated, there’s still time to send it in, he said.
He said the Colville Confederated Tribes purchased four flat-screen televisions and plan to raffle those among tribal members who sent their forms back. There are also two large billboards in Omak featuring tribal members encouraging people to send the forms back. “If I don’t say it, who’s going to say it for me?” one billboard asks.
“We only have through the end of the month to get our responses through the mail. If we don’t, we’re going to be hiring people to knock on your door,” Wakan said.
Those extra census takers will cost the federal government an estimated $1.5 billion nationally — a cost that can be saved if everyone filled out their census form, he said.
K.C. Mehaffey: 997-2512