WILLISTON, N.D. (AP) - The director of the U.S. Census Bureau toured the center of North Dakota’s red-hot oil patch Wednesday and came away impressed - and mindful of the challenges for his agency in getting an accurate count of such a rapidly growing area.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like this,” John Thompson said during a meeting with local officials in Williston, the nation’s fastest-growing micropolitan area, an entity with between 10,000 and 50,000 people.
Getting accurate counts in the area can prove difficult. Tens of thousands of out-of-state workers have arrived from around the country, with the majority of residents coming in just the past five years.
North Dakota’s population is at an all-time high, but it doesn’t count many nonresidents who work in the state. It was pegged at 723,000 residents last July, in the most recent figures available.
While Williston and other towns in the area are trying to establish themselves as places for people to settle down, many workers see their stay as temporary. Local officials believe that skewed the last census.
“I just really sensed last time that a lot of people didn’t want to be counted here; they wanted to be counted back home,” said Mayor Ward Koeser. Next time around, people need to know that identifying themselves as living in Williston does not mean they “have to give up hunting privileges in Wyoming - it’s just where you’re living, where you’re sleeping,” he said.
The 2010 census counted Williston’s population as 14,716. Today, Koeser says the population is at least twice that number. Others quote even higher figures.
The actual number matters because it’s key to both federal and state money that may flow to the area, and local officials fear they may be missing out on millions of dollars.
Kevin Iverson, manager of the census office at the state Commerce Department, estimates that up to 60,000 nonresidents work in North Dakota. That’s only 1,000 fewer than the population of Bismarck, North Dakota’s second-most populous city.
“We have a dynamic population that comes and goes,” Iverson said.
About $450 billion in federal aid is split with states each year based on population, or about $1,500 per person. That would equal about $90 million for Iverson’s estimated 60,000 nonresidents.
Thompson echoed Koeser in calling for more education in the area about what the Census Bureau does - and about the fact that identifying oneself as living in North Dakota will not mean workers have to change their residence or voting status.
“We don’t share our data with anyone. We keep it entirely confidential, and we’re not an enforcement agency. We are basically a data collection agency, and that’s what we do,” he said.
If census workers can confirm that a person spends the majority of their time living and sleeping in one place, they will be counted there even if they identify their home as elsewhere, Thompson said.
But at the end of the day, he noted, it all comes down to people being honest.
The discussion between Thompson and local officials also focused on how the census can work around the oil patch’s unique working conditions.
In a place where growth constantly outpaces maps and many people don’t have mailing addresses, the census bureau cannot rely on data from the Postal Service for addresses. They will have to locate homes on foot. With jobs in retail and fast-food restaurants starting at more than $15 an hour in places like Williston, the Census Bureau will need to hike its rates to attract employees, Thompson said.
They will also have to look at nontraditional homes like hotels, said Christa Jones, special assistant to the director. Many people working in the oil patch live in barracks-style worker camps, trailers and hotel rooms rented by companies.
Thompson was invited to visit the area by North Dakota U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp.
Heitkamp said she is mulling legislation that would take North Dakota’s oil boom into account, perhaps by looking at ways programs can calculate aid without depending on census numbers.
“I don’t think we’ve seen a phenomena such as this in any other state other than Alaska,” she said, referring to the state’s oil boom that began in the late 1970s.
Associated Press writer James MacPherson contributed to this story from Bismarck, N.D.