By Tim O’Meilia
The towns of South Palm Beach and Highland Beach have more registered voters than they have actual flesh-and-blood residents. You can look it up.
The seaside enclave of Briny Breezes suddenly has 800 not-so-mobile homes, the U.S. Census says. But everyone in town knows that a walk-around count reveals only 487 homes.
The figures released by the U.S. Census Bureau in March have some coastal towns in a tizzy over the numbers that will be used to redraw state and congressional districts and, more importantly, for each town’s cut of state revenue.
The census pegs South Palm Beach at 1,171 folks — 360 fewer than 10 years ago — but the Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections has 1,292 voters on its rolls.
“They say we have less people than we have voters. Do we have 120 illegal voters?” asked exasperated South Palm Beach Mayor Donald Clayman. “Did we bring them in just to vote?”
Not only that, but the census numbers are less than the 1,523 people the University of Florida Bureau of Economic Research estimated the town had last year. The bureau bases its numbers on electrical connections and other factors.
Town Manager Rex Taylor suspects the shortfall may have come because when census counters tried to do follow-ups in the town’s condominiums, doormen wouldn’t let them in.
“Unless he’s got a uniform or a 911 call, he doesn’t get in,” Taylor said.
Coastal towns also have to deal with the reality of part-time residents who declare somewhere Up North or Back East as their primary residence. That means towns have higher seasonal populations than the census gives them credit for, costing them state money.
It’s not the first time South Palm Beach was shortchanged by federal counters. “In 2000, they screwed it up. We’ve got calls in to Atlanta now,” Clayman said. Atlanta is the regional census headquarters.
Ten years ago, the census said South Palm Beach had only 699 people, less than half of what town residents knew lived there. A two-year appeal resulted in a correction to 1,171 people, which brought the town a $60,000 increase in revenue-sharing money.
In Highland Beach, the census says the town has 3,539 residents, 20 fewer than the number of registered voters.
“The numbers don’t work,” said Highland Beach Commissioner John Pagliaro, who figures the town’s year-round population is about 4,300.
The town apparently lost 100 housing units in the past 10 years. “We’ve had some homes demolished, but they were all single family homes,” Pagliaro said.
The town has barely more homes than residents, suggesting that Highland Beach has an extraordinarily high number of singles.
Some residents complained to town officials that they didn’t receive census forms to fill out.
“When you count registered voters, you’ve had people actually fill out a form to vote,” said interim Town Manager Kathleen Weiser, suggesting that may be more a more reliable number. “This is a blatant difference.”
One explanation for the discrepancy between registered voters and residents is that voters who die or move away may remain on the voting rolls for several years. But even if that accounts for several hundred people, the numbers still suggest that nearly every resident is a registered voter.
“We did everything so well,” said South Palm Beach’s Clayman. “We held parties, gave out T-shirts at every town affair, gave talks at the condominiums. You don’t know how aggravating this is. We don’t have that many people to start with. We want all of them counted.”
Some towns pleased
Not everyone was unhappy. Ocean Ridge had a 9.2 percent increase.
“Basically, we have no argument with the numbers,” said Town Manager Ken Schenck where the population rose by 150 to 1,786. Like other coastal towns , Ocean Ridge figures the winter brings in 1,000 more part-time residents that are likely accounted for elsewhere.
Despite the apparently wrong count of housing units in Briny Breezes, the population increased by 46.2 percent to 601 residents.
“Surprisingly, we went up,” said Mayor Roger Bennett, who estimates the town has a seasonal population of more than 1,000. He said the increased number may help the town’s prospectus if it seeks a new buyer for the town.
Manalapan, the smallest village on the coast, logged an increase of 85 to a 406 total. “We’re very pleased,” said Town Clerk Lisa Petersen.
Gulf Stream’s increase to 786 residents may be less than its real population since it super-sized in March, Town Manager William Thrasher suspects. The annexed county pocket likely wasn’t included in the census figures taken two years ago.
Claims begin in June
If a town or other government subdivision believes its numbers are wrong, it must wait until June 1 to file an appeal — called a Count Question Resolution — no matter how obvious the error may be, said U.S. Census geographer Nancy Bechler in the regional office in Atlanta.
“No field workers will be sent to re-count. The town must provide supporting documentation such as electrical connections or
voting records to back its claim.”