ASHLAND – It’s time for every citizen to stand up and be counted.

The 2020 US Census is underway, and taking part is important because the figures help the federal government determine how tax dollars are allocated for things like roads and how many free and reduced meals are allowed per school district. They also are used to determine the number of Congress members for each state and draw voting districts, and many other purposes.

On the state level, census numbers are used by agencies like the Nebraska Extension to ensure staffing is in line with state demographics in the areas where services are focused, including livestock, crops and water, nutrition, youth and family and more, according to a press release from Nebraska Extension.

“We want to make sure that it’s a representation of who we are and what our population looks like,” said Kathleen Lodl, associate dean of Nebraska Extension.

According to David Drodz, research coordinator for the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Center for Public Affairs Research and the Nebraska State Data Center, only 31.5 percent of residents have returned their census forms since official notices began showing up in mailboxes on March 12.

“That level is 10 points below the Nebraska-wide value of 41.2 percent,” said Drodz. “Your neighbor to the north of Dodge County is a 41.9 percent, ranking 17th best.”

Saunders County comes in at No. 71. Howard County leads the state with 51.4 percent. Cass County is tied with Rock County for 34th place with 38.7 percent.

For the first time since the US Census began in 1790, the public has four ways to respond – online at my2020census.gov, by mailing in the official form received after March 12, during an in-person interview or by calling 844-330-2020.

Online responses are the recommended method, Drodz said, but filling out paper forms is another option.

“People can sure wait until they have a paper form (older residents especially may be more comfortable with this), but if doing so are asked to complete it right away after they receive it,” he said.

Some residents in Saunders County may have received fake census forms. Drodz said the envelope should say “official document” and the invitation letter must include the household’s 12-digit unique identifier code needed to go online to complete.

If census forms aren’t completed within the next couple of weeks using one of the four recommended methods, in-person interviews will be scheduled.

“They are costly to the taxpayer and provide less reliable information,” said Drodz.

The COVID-19 pandemic has cancelled many promotional activities for the census across the state and pushed back census operations in homeless shelters two weeks or more, Drodz said. The pandemic may also affect in-person interviewing, which is scheduled to begin May 1.

“I don’t think they’ll cancel that but it could take a different form,” he said.

Instead, census takers may try calling non-responding households first, but Drodz said that is not the preferred method because the phone numbers are often not accurate.

As the 2020 Census gets under way, the US Census Bureau is releasing the annual county population estimates. Population figures are from July 1, 2019.

The population of Saunders County was estimated at 21,578 – only 500 people lower than the record high of 22,085 recorded in 1910, Drodz said.

“So Saunders County has its highest population in over 100 years,” he said.

In the past two years, Saunders County has grown at a much faster rate than the previous seven, Drodz said. The 2019 count show 304 more citizens than the year before, when the number had increased by 242. In contrast, the county only grew by 23 people per year from 2011 to 2017.

“The growth rate of 1.4 percent over the past year ranked fifth highest among all Nebraska counties, even exceeding the growth in Lancaster County (0.8 percent),” Drodz added.

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