LONG BEACH — As the deadline for challenging the preliminary count of the 1990 Census expired this week, cities across California loudly complained that thousands of residents had been overlooked. In Long Beach, however, there was hardly a peep.
City officials have filed a challenge saying census takers missed 269 Long Beach residents in six blocks, including a four-block patch of central Long Beach crowded with Cambodian and Latino immigrants. In the four blocks alone, the city estimates a population of 734, about 45% more than the census count of 506.
The decision to challenge the data in just six blocks surprised some activists, who said they believe that census takers missed up to 25,000 people.
" What? " said a shocked Bonnie Lowenthal, director of planning for the United Cambodian Community, when told of the city's minimal challenge. "That is really absurd. That is just dumb."
Preliminary census data showed that the city's population grew 17% in the last decade, to 423,394 people. City officials say that figure is within 0.3% of the city's own estimates.
About the only thing both sides agree on is that the count is important because state and federal funding is tied to population. But neither side really knows what that population is.
"This is kind of like the argument about how many angels danced on the head of a pin," City Manager James C. Hankla said.
Planning and Building Director Robert Paternoster said: "Maybe everybody could be wrong."
Community workers are basing their arguments on observation and gut instincts--factors inspiring Hankla's skepticism.
"Some days, I also feel like we're a city of 450,000," he said.
Long Beach lacks sophisticated record-keeping and computer systems that would enable officials to know more confidently whether there was an undercount, several city officials said.
While some cities were compiling records on burgeoning ethnic populations that would later help them rebut census data, Long Beach had done next to nothing by the time 179 pages of Census Bureau statistics rolled in last month, officials acknowledged.
"That was scary," said Glenn Walker, a part-time information specialist for the city's Planning Department, who was the only staff member assigned to read the numbers, now in a loose-leaf binder as thick as the Los Angeles Yellow Pages.
"All these figures, and we just didn't know if they were right," he said. "We had nothing to go on."
Walker said he found the population discrepancies in six blocks by comparing the number of utility bills in each city block with the census count of housing units for that block.
Community workers questioned the utility-bill method, pointing out that many immigrants share one utility bill when they occupy one-room apartments in older buildings or other substandard housing without individual meters.
Workers also pointed out that residents in many areas are recent immigrants who speak no English and were probably afraid of the census takers, while census takers may not have spoken the immigrants' language.
Walker said he would have preferred to have "better information" for his research but added that he is convinced that the Census count is basically accurate.
The debate over the dull statistics is anything but dull.
Long Beach activists said they suspect city officials would prefer to ignore the reality of crammed city blocks and increasing numbers of immigrants and homeless because of the potential negative impact on the city's image.
"The city has a real conflict," Lowenthal said. "The more citizens we have, the more money we get. But on the other hand, officials don't want to alarm people and businesses moving into the city."
Hankla said activists who suggest such a theory are being paranoid. "Why would we cover it up?" he said, noting that population figures translate into revenues. "There's no conspiracy here."
Nevertheless, members of the Complete Count Committee, the group the city put in charge of telling residents about the census, complain that the city did not give them enough help.
"The city did not care about getting information out to minority communities and looking into the undercount," said Tonia Reyes Uranga, an employment consultant who was a member of the committee.
Uranga said the city's white Establishment is reluctant to recognize the growth of the Latino community in Long Beach because it represents a threat to the power of the city's leaders.
Long Beach gave the Complete Count Committee $44,000--which the group's final report calculated at about a dime per resident--and two staffers: a part-timer and an intern.
"It was a joke," said Luis Pinel, head of the Hispanic Apartment Managers Assn. and a member of the panel.
Torres said he and 20 others on the 34-member committee eventually dropped out because they were disenchanted with the committee and with its relationship with the city.
Now that the city's official challenge is in, there is little anybody can do to change the final census population tally for another 10 years.
But officials and activists warn that the debate is not over.
Next summer, Walker said, he will have to redraw the map for the city's council districts, based on new Census data. The districts must be drawn so each has a roughly equal population, while avoiding splintering ethnic groups.
"Then the fur will really begin to fly," Walker said.