AP NEWS

Council delays contract aimed at limiting census undercount in Houston

May 1, 2019

A $650,000 contract to boost outreach in hopes of limiting an undercount of Houston’s population during the 2020 Census sparked a feisty debate around the city council table Wednesday, with some members contending the taxpayer-funded contract would pay for itself in the form of federal aid while others argued against the expenditure amid an ongoing budget crunch and the possible layoff of hundreds of employees to meet the requirements of Proposition B.

At issue was a deal that would require Lopez Negrete Communications, a Houston-based agency focused on Hispanic marketing, to “achieve the maximum outreach and response possible for the 2020 Census.” Two council members tagged the measure, delaying a vote on the contract for a week.

The contract covers the first phase of a plan to “count every single soul in our city,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said Wednesday. A second phase would bring the total cost to about $1.6 million if it receives council approval during the next fiscal year.

Some council members balked at the cost, as well as the timing of the contract.

More than 200 Houston firefighters received 60-day layoff notices Tuesday to partially offset the cost of raises mandated by Prop B, the voter-approved charter amendment that requires the city to pay firefighters the same as police of corresponding rank and seniority. The Turner administration has estimated the cost of fully implementing Prop B at $80 million a year. The city already has issued layoff notices to 111 fire cadets and municipal employees.

District D Councilman Dwight Boykins, an ally of the Houston fire union, took issue with the contract funding coming out of the city’s general fund, the same pot of money used to pay firefighters and a host of other city services. He floated the idea of a private fundraising campaign to underwrite census outreach instead.

“I just think we’re putting our priorities in the wrong spot, mayor,” Boykins said. “... Every week, it has to come out of the general fund because of some explanation, but we’re steadily laying people off.”

Turner and several other council members argued that the contract would save the city far more than the cost of the contract because census data determine how the federal government distributes funds to cities and other local communities.

“It’s so critical for places like Houston because we have so many people who are likely to be undercounted,” said Stephen Klineberg, founding director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research. “And that has everything to do with how much money we get from the federal government to meet their local needs.”

A slow population growth estimate by Census Bureau created a $17 million hole in the city budget in 2018.

In 2006, 2008 and 2010, however, Houston successfully appealed its population counts, adding as much as 3 percent to the total in 2010.

The mayor said each uncounted person would cost the city about $1,500 in federal funding, ticking off a list of services — education, infrastructure, flood control — the census count would impact. Census data also determine how many seats each state has in the U.S. House of Representatives.

A few council members who backed the contract also noted the Trump administration intends to ask census respondents whether they are U.S. citizens, a query critics say would dissuade immigrants from participating, potentially leading to an inaccurate count. Trump administration officials say the question would allow the Justice Department to better enforce the Voting Rights Act by providing more detailed citizenship data.

Even without a citizenship question, Klineberg said, it has proven difficult in prior census counts to get underserved minorities and immigrants to respond.

″‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help you, you can trust me’ is not a message that most immigrants are prone to believe,” he said.

Mayor Pro Tem Ellen Cohen suggested the prospect of a citizenship question — which the Supreme Court currently is reviewing — adds urgency to the city’s census outreach efforts. The question would make it “extraordinarily difficult to get people to fill it out,” she said.

“And consequently, we’re going to suffer,’ Cohen continued. “I don’t know what the numbers are, but I would venture a guess that the investment made with Lopez (Negrete) now will have multiple benefits for us.”

Councilman Robert Gallegos, whose District I in southeast Houston has a population that is 82 percent Hispanic according to 2017 data, bristled at Boykins for mentioning firefighter and municipal layoffs during the contract discussion.

“I’m ashamed that you’d even try to relate this to Prop B,” he said to Boykins, who later apologized to Gallegos.

In the end, Gallegos tagged the item, saying he had not yet met with the city’s planning department to discuss the contract. Boykins also tagged the contract.

At-Large Councilman Mike Knox, meanwhile, questioned why the first stage of the contract would be devoted largely to “preparation” and “strategy, or developing strategy.” Knox also noted the potential $1.6 million value of the full contract, a number not listed on a memo attached to the agenda.

When Turner told Knox he could vote for the contract Wednesday but still oppose the second phase next fiscal year, the councilman replied, “Honestly, mayor, how can we vote on Phase I and not vote for it on Phase II?”

jasper.scherer@chron.com