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LUMBERTON — Preliminary census numbers show Robeson County has more than 17,000 fewer residents than it did in 2010, which could cost the county state dollars.

In 2010, the Census Bureau reported Robeson County had 134,168 residents. Ten years later, the population dropped to 116,530, according to preliminary numbers.

Robeson County leads the state in population lost, with Red Springs, Lumberton, Pembroke, Fairmont and Maxton all seeing reductions. Red Springs lost about 341 residents from its 2010 population of 3,428 (a 9.9% decline); Lumberton lost 2,517 of 21,542 (11.7%); Fairmont lost 472 residents of 2,663 (17.7%); Pembroke lost 150 of 2,973 (5%) and Maxton lost 316 of 2,426 or 13%.

Conversely, St. Pauls gained 10 more residents than recorded in 2010, when the population was 2,035.

Those population numbers could affect state revenues because Census counts act as a baseline for area populations and are factored into a formula to determine how much funding an area can get, said Bob Coats, Governor’s Census Liaison at the North Carolina Office of State Budget and Management.

“At this point I think we will need to see the full census data to be able to determine the true impact on potential funding that the loss in population from 2010 to 2020 will have on the region and Robeson County,” said David Richardson, Lumber River Council of Governments executive director.

Fairmont Town Manager Hank Raper shared his concern about the town’s Census data and the population decline it shows during Tuesday’s Board of Commissioners meeting.

“That’s a significant drop in our population, a total of 17%,” Raper said Tuesday.

“So, that’s something we became aware of this week, and I thought you needed to be aware of that because that will affect our ability to budget and plan for future expenditures going forward,” the town manager told commissioners and the town residents at the meeting.

Fifty-one North Carolina counties and 52% of counties nationwide saw a population decrease, Coats said. Nationwide growth is the lowest seen since the Great Depression. Lower birth rates could factor into that dip.

However, the trend of residents moving from rural to metropolitan areas continues, Coats said. Some people move for better opportunities, like jobs.

But, Robeson County residents were affected by two major storms, with Hurricane Matthew making landfall in October 2016 and Hurricane Florence in September 2018.

“[H]urricanes Matthew and Florence had a substantial impact on the population decline that Robeson County saw because of the significant displacements of individuals that occurred because of the flooding,” Richardson said.

“I think that the COVID pandemic and the fact that the majority of the census this time was attempted to be handled online could have contributed to the decline in population shown in not only Robeson County but other rural areas of the state and country due to the greater challenges in accessing the online census forms,” he added.

Robeson County Manager Kellie Blue told The Robesonian that the county plans to “complete a random count of housing units to determine if numbers are correct or if we need to file a challenge.”

She did not provide a timeline for the count.

The Census Bureau, through its Count Question Resolution Program, will begin accepting in January cases in which local or state governments challenge the population numbers or district lines. The deadline for submitting preliminary count data challenges to the U.S. Census Bureau is June 30, 2023. After the June deadline, those entities can pay for a special census count to contest preliminary figures.

The preliminary figures likely won’t have a large affect on economic Tier designations, he said.

Tier designations are given to counties to identify how economically distressed an area is. Tier rankings take into account unemployment rates, median household incomes and population growth, according to the N.C. Department of Commerce. Tier rankings also can affect how funding from the state is distributed among counties.

“This Tier system is incorporated into various state programs to encourage economic activity in the less prosperous areas of the state,” according to the NCDC.

More data must be gathered before the full impact to the county is known, Coats said.

“The census data that came out last week isn’t gonna answer all these questions,” he said.

The American Community Survey results will be released in December. The survey contains a more detailed look at the population, including data on vocations, education and housing, and more, according to census.gov.

Next year, the county’s standing should be clearer as a more detailed report including demographic information, households and age breakdowns is listed by the Census Bureau, Coats said. He was unsure of the release date.

The state did see a 903,905 population increase in 2020, when compared to its 9,535,483 residents in 2010. The growth even earned the state another seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“That will mean N.C. has a larger voice in Congress,” Coats said. “That’s a positive aspect.”

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