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Lakewood, La Mirada Challenge Census : Population: Reported 2% declines are wrong, city officials say, and decrease would deprive cities of millions in tax revenues.


The U.S. Census Bureau has given Lakewood and La Mirada each a distinction enjoyed by no other Southeast city: a population decrease. But officials in those two cities are protesting instead of celebrating their escape from the madding crowd.

City leaders said they will challenge preliminary census data, released last week, that show their populations decreased over the last decade.

They said the recorded population decline, 2% in each city, is inaccurate and could strip away millions in state and federal funds.

In Lakewood, the Census Bureau allegedly missed an entire tract of homes in the eastern portion of the city, 45 new homes in the north and numerous apartment units built in the last decade, said Don Waldie, the city's public information officer.

"The number of new condominiums, apartments and houses does not square with the number of units the census shows," he said. "Even if that missing tract is finally credited to Lakewood, we still may not be satisfied. It would still be about 1,500 to 2,000 residents away from what the state Department of Finance estimates for Lakewood."

La Mirada City Manager Gary Sloan was equally unhappy. After he looked at the census figures, he said, "I was wondering where everybody went."

Sloan estimated that his city's population had grown about 10%, from developments that added hundreds of new homes and from condominiums and senior citizens' apartments during the last decade.

Cities have 15 days to appeal the census figures to the bureau. If they are still not satisfied, they can sue.

The argument is hardly esoteric for cities that receive state and federal funding based on local head counts. While most other Los Angeles-area cities are looking at increasing dollars, Lakewood and La Mirada could be forced to revise their budgets downward.

Lakewood officials say the census figures, if allowed to stand, would take away about $200,000 a year from the city. That is about 5% of what the city receives from the state.

Neither Lakewood nor La Mirada expected a population drop because of earlier estimates from the state and county. The state's best guess, for example, overshot the census by about 4,000 persons in Lakewood.

The unwelcome surprise was in line with what one expert calls the most striking feature of the census. "Cities that were mostly Hispanic had a higher population than estimated by the state, and cities that were mostly Anglo had a lower population than estimated by the state," said David Heer, associate director of the Population Research Laboratory at USC.

The explanation is that Latino families are even larger than expected, much larger than Anglo families. Most of the households in Lakewood and La Mirada are Anglo.

About 30% of Lakewood's residents have lived in this bedroom community for more than 25 years, Waldie said. They moved in during the 1950s after developers built 17,000 homes in Lakewood between 1950 and 1953.

"The homes were moved into all at once by people of almost the same age," Waldie said. "They all got older at once."

Lakewood's population declined by more than 9,000 between 1970 and 1980, a trend that city officials do not deny. But Waldie and other city officials said the city turned the corner, that new families were buying out senior citizens and the population was rising again.

"We didn't expect dramatic growth, but we expected an increase," Waldie said. "The school population has increased. There are more children participating in after-school and recreation programs. We have noted more families moving in. We have even seen things like water use go up. All the evidence would suggest that the home that was once occupied by an older resident is now being lived in by mom and dad and 2.3 kids."

Some county data supports Waldie's assertions. County Planner George Malone said that Lakewood has only a slightly larger percentage of people older than 50 when compared with the county at large.

Nonetheless, the county estimate for Lakewood was not vastly different from the census results, and aging families could account for a population drop, Malone said.

"Lakewood is characteristic of a built-up city that changes little over time," Malone said. "I would have expected La Mirada to grow a little more."

La Mirada city officials list a number of developments during the last decade. The Landmark residential project added 100 condominiums and 140 houses during the 1980s. "I live in one of those Landmark homes and so does one of my department heads," said City Manager Sloan, who added that his mother had moved into the condominium.

Two other developments added 240 units of senior housing, and in the new Hillsborough tracts, 204 condominium units and 341 houses have been sold, although not all are occupied yet.

"The new housing, that was all raw land," Sloan said. "I don't know of a single house or apartment building that has come down over 10 years where one hasn't gone up in its place."

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