Politics & Government

After a late start, Fort Worth begins census outreach efforts. Arlington’s is well underway

For months now, Texas’ largest cities and counties have ramped up outreach ahead of the 2020 Census, funding new positions and approving hundreds of thousands of dollars to ensure their residents are accounted for.

Fort Worth’s Complete Count Committee is just getting started — if a little behind schedule.

The stakes are high for Fort Worth, the nation’s 13th largest city and one of its fastest growing. The constitutionally mandated survey that comes once a decade will be the basis for funneling millions of federal funds toward Fort Worth, in addition to shaping two new city council districts.

With its first complete count committee meeting in the books, Fort Worth officials stress the city isn’t behind its counterparts — like Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin — whose efforts are well underway, and backed by funding too.

“I don’t think we are behind an eight-ball because Dallas named a committee or Arlington named a committee, and they’ve met once or twice, and we hadn’t officially named a person and started to meet,” said Councilwoman Kelly Allen Gray, who co-chairs Fort Worth’s committee. “Every city is autonomous in how they get to do this. I think, ultimately, what’s most important is that the work gets done.”

Meanwhile, the city of Arlington has dedicated $30,000 toward census outreach efforts and started its monthly complete count committee meetings in January, Arlington City Councilwoman Victoria Farrar-Myers said.

“As a city, the burden is on us to make sure that we reach (out) to our communities, that we build that trust,” Farrar-Myers said. “Because the trust we build in this process is the trust that’s going to take us through any kind of adversity or anything that our city faces in the future.”

Advocates said they’re glad Fort Worth’s efforts are getting underway, but that more work needs to be done ahead of April 1, 2020 — census day.

“We are relieved and very pleased to hear that Fort Worth is jumping in the game now to ensure a full and accurate Census count,” said Ann Beeson, the CEO of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, an Austin think tank. “Time is of the essence. Hopefully Fort Worth’s complete count committee can learn from some of the efforts that have been in the works for several months in other cities.”

Fort Worth’s plans

In April, a post on the city’s website said members of Fort Worth’s Complete Count Committee would be announced “in the coming weeks.”

It’s been five months since then. Earlier this month, Michelle Gutt, a city spokeswoman, said committee members were being finalized and that the goal was for the committee to meet the third week of September.

The committee’s first meeting came a week later on Monday afternoon at Hazel Harvey Peace Elementary School.

City officials have stressed that community outreach occurs year round, and that work behind the scenes — like conversations with U.S. Census Bureau staff and assembling members for the complete count committee — has been ongoing.

“From our point of view, we were still progressively building toward that effort. Now, were we say, to the point in time where we needed to be? No, there’s always room for improvement. We’re doing that,” said Councilman Carlos Flores, who co-chairs Fort Worth’s committee. “This meeting is that major first step.”

Appointed by Mayor Betsy Price, Gray and Flores worked to select committee members. For Gray, diverse backgrounds and voices were a priority.

“I want the complete count committee to look like our city and to represent our entire city and not just particular segments of our city,” Gray said.

The 25 members, announced Tuesday, include representatives from the mayor’s office, Tarrant County, the Fort Worth school district and the Hispanic and Metropolitan Black chambers of commerce.

Those members will be divided into subcommittees, which will focus on six areas: government, education, faith-based, media, community-based organizations and business.

More members may be added, and the committee will meet monthly through April, according to an informal report from City Manager David Cooke.

As of now, there is no additional funding toward outreach initiatives. After state lawmakers failed to approve funding for Census outreach at a statewide level, cities have stepped up to devote their own resources.

“The best way to get out the count is to invest in trusted community organizations and trusted messengers, but those messengers can’t do this challenging work without resources,” Beeson said.

“Twenty-four percent of people in Fort Worth live in hard-to-count communities. That is a very high number and is similar to the high risk of an undercount in the rest of the state. That’s why it’s so important that the city and county develop detailed outreach plans now.”

Gutt previously said Fort Worth’s census outreach will come from existing budgets, but Flores said there could be the potential for additional resources down the road.

“Funding is of course an important aspect of that,” Flores said. “To that end we’ve been having discussions with the city manager to find avenues for which we can go ahead and have that funding realized.”

Gray also served on the city’s complete count committee in 2010, and she noted that Fort Worth has gone through a census without additional funds before.

“There’s enough ways that we can count people and be involved, that we don’t have to take dollars out of the budget and allocate to different things,” she said. “A big part of it is partnerships. You can make it work using those partnerships that you have available to you, from Tarrant County and the city of Arlington, and all of the smaller cities around Fort Worth. You can do so many things.”

Arlington and Tarrant County

Those partnerships are just beginning for Tarrant County.

Bill Hanna, a spokesman for the county, said Tuesday afternoon the county will be collaborating with cities, with plans for Tarrant County commissioners and the Mayors’ Council to be briefed on the census in the coming weeks.

But Tarrant County also hasn’t put any funds toward its efforts.

“Historically, Tarrant County has relied on non-county sources for funding as it relates to the Census. Currently there are no funds budgeted for outreach regarding the 2020 Census,” Hanna wrote in a statement. “Tarrant County is working with the North Central Texas Council of Governments on technical aspects of ensuring an accurate count.”

In Austin, the city partnered with Travis County to jointly fund a census program manager position. Houston and Harris County have joined forces, with the commissioner’s court approving spending up to $4 million on outreach efforts. And San Antonio and Bexar County have devoted over $400,000 to their joint efforts.

“Most of the other major metro areas in Texas have worked hard to raise public and private dollars to get out the count, because it is such a good return on investment,” Beeson said. “Spending a little bit of resources now can leverage literally billions of dollars in federal funds for the state as a whole, and obviously that would be in the millions annually for Fort Worth.”

In 2016, the census was the basis for allocating $59 billion in federal funding to Texas, according to the George Washington University Institute of Public Policy. And because of the state’s growth, Texas stands to gain up to three more seats in Congress.

In Arlington, the city’s 26-member complete count committee has been working to develop outreach strategies. Supported by 11 staff liaisons and with $30,000 set aside for outreach, the committee has brainstormed ways to reach specific groups, like foreign-born residents within certain demographics or transient communities.

The committee plans to release a calendar in October, with a list of events, including a town hall. In the meantime, the city has resources and information on its work on its website.

“The key to making sure this process goes seamlessly is coordination. It comes down to the two C’s: communication and coordination,” Farrar-Myers said of working with Census Bureau staff and community partners. “There’s a multitude of events on any given day in our city, and so by piggybacking into many of those events, we’ve really been able to drive costs down.”

Farrar-Myers said each city needs to look at its own needs, and for Arlington the goal is to not only ensure an accurate count, but forge stronger bonds as a community.

“We want to use this as an opportunity to build not just for (the) census, but to build a greater, stronger community to help us with much more vexing problems going forward,” Farrar-Myers said.

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Tessa Weinberg is a state government for the Star-Telegram. Based in Austin, she covers all things policy and politics with a focus on Tarrant County. She previously covered the Missouri legislature where her reporting prompted an investigation by the Attorney General’s office. A California native and graduate of the University of Missouri, she’s made her way across the U.S. and landed in Texas in May 2019.