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Government & Politics

U.S. Census Office Opens In Billings

U.S. Census Bureau Regional Director Cathy Lacy speaks at a podium
Nicky Ouellet
Yellowstone Public Radio
U.S. Census Bureau Regional Director Cathy Lacy

Billings became one of the first cities in the West to open a US Census Office Tuesday.

Numbers collected next spring and summer will determine whether Montana gets a second seat in Congress, how legislative districts are reorganized and how much federal funding the state will get for highway repairs, housing assistance, schools and more.

Billings Mayor Bill Cole says Montanans have a lot riding on the population count to be collected next year.

"By one estimate, Montana could miss out on as much as $20,000 per resident who is not counted in the 2020 census. And oh, by the way, there is that thing called a second representative in the U.S. House of Representatives," says Cole.

Cole says Billings' city government uses census data daily to predict population patterns, draft land uses and access federal grants for housing assistance.

Conducting the decennial Census is also a temporary job creator.

Cathy Lacy, a U.S. Census Bureau regional director based in Denver, says more than a 1,000 temporary workers will be needed over the next year and a half to complete Montana’s count.

The Billings Census Office has already hired 50 staffers. Another thousand temporary census takers will be hired in the next year across Montana to help complete the count.

"We want to hire locally, specifically in tribal nations. In order for us to be successful the person who's opening the door needs to be able to relate to the person who's knocking on the door. Understand the culture, understand the language. To me that's the key to our success, so we started early," says Lacy.

Leonard Smith is the executive director of the Billings-based Native American Development Corporation. He says some tribal members, like other people living in the state’s remote corners, are hesitant to disclose personal information, like who they’re living with, to a federal representative.

"A lot of it is going to be dependent upon how much support they get from the tribal governments and organizations like ourselves who can provide that support," says Smith.

He says NADC is working with tribal governments on the Fort Peck and Blackfeet Reservations. Other communities, like the Northern Cheyenne Tribe and the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council, along with more than 30 cities, counties and organizations, have established Complete Count Committees to drum up local involvement, which Census workers say increases the likelihood of an accurate count.

Census 2020 surveys can be completed by phone, mail and, for the first time next year, over the internet.