The City Limits Sign Moves Farther Out as the 2020 Census Nears

The City Limits Sign Moves Farther Out as the 2020 Census Nears

DECATUR, Ill. — The last three census counts brought bitter confirmation of what Decatur residents could already see for themselves, after the factories cut shifts and the neighbors moved away. Their city, whose welcome sign boasts of being the original home of the Chicago Bears, was shrinking.

But ahead of this year’s official head count, Decatur officials are trying a new way to boost their numbers: If people won’t move to Decatur — where downtown coffee shops are nestled amid mid-rise buildings, factories are hiring again and the area’s first Chipotle just opened — Decatur will move to them.

Over the last year, the City Council pushed Decatur’s boundaries outward, annexing hundreds of properties despite vehement objections from new residents whose spacious houses and half-acre lots contrast sharply with the smaller, aging homes in neighborhoods closer to downtown.

The annexation drive in Decatur, where the population in the latest federal estimate was just over 71,000, down from 94,000 in 1980, is part of a once-a-decade land rush across the country. Ahead of a 2020 census that will shape government budgets for the next 10 years, officials in cities in Wyoming, Arizona, Alabama and elsewhere pitched plans to broaden their borders.

The push has been especially aggressive in Illinois, where state money is tight, many cities are struggling and municipal leaders need any resident they can find to help pay for filling potholes and employing firefighters.

“Every dollar does matter, every citizen does matter — especially when the census is coming,” said Decatur’s mayor, Julie Moore Wolfe, who voted for the annexations. Without the new territory and higher population count, she said, city services would have suffered.

Anytime a city annexes land, it carries the fiscal promise of increasing the local tax base, along with the duty to provide services like street repairs and policing to a wider area. But annexation before the once-a-decade census offers an added prize: higher numbers for a count that is used to seal some state and federal funding for the decade ahead.

For more than a generation, as the American South and West grew, the federal census count delivered bad news to Illinois. Many Illinois cities that grew in the first part of the 20th century — Chicago, Peoria, Moline, East St. Louis — have seen their populations stagnate or drop in recent decades. Over the last 70 years, Illinois went from having 26 congressional districts to 18, and it is likely to lose at least one more House seat after 2020.

In Decatur, the trends have vexed a generation of city leaders. In 2001, the Bridgestone/Firestone tire factory closed, and Archer Daniels Midland, a food processing company, moved its corporate headquarters to Chicago in 2014. These days, some lots near the city center are empty, many homes are in disrepair, and residents say crime is a persistent concern. About 21 percent of Decatur residents live in poverty, compared with 12 percent of people statewide.

Hence the push outward, toward Sarah Burleton’s home, where the front porch has a view of a soybean field and a deer hunting stand.

Ms. Burleton, who said she moved out of Decatur years ago after growing fed up with the city’s trajectory, was unsettled to find her family targeted for annexation last year. She emailed the mayor and protested the decision on the pages of the local newspaper, The Herald & Review, but still found her land consumed by the city limits. She is waiting to find out how much her taxes will rise.

“Our city has been unable to bring new business or attract any new residents to the area, so in a desperate land grab for federal dollars they’ve decided to force people into annexation to ensure their own survival,” said Ms. Burleton, a memoir author.

“They have failed somewhere,” she added, “and now we’re being punished for it.”

Clashes over annexation have happened before. For decades, as cities grew and development encroached on the countryside, mayors have been eager to expand, and homeowners have been unenthusiastic about paying higher taxes. Laws in many states give cities sweeping authority to absorb bordering properties whether the owners like it or not.

But the recent annexations in Decatur and some other Illinois cities have been novel because, rather than adding land as a consequence of organic growth, city leaders expanded their boundaries as an answer to population decline.

Officials in Rockford, Freeport and Sterling, Ill., also have annexed land in recent months. In its most recent projections, the Census Bureau predicted that the new count would show that all of those cities had lost residents since 2010.

“I’m not sure that we’re going to annex enough people to bring us back to the 2010” population, said Mayor Skip Lee of Sterling. He said he does not believe his community has shrunk as much as the count may suggest, and he worried that some people might not fill out the census out of fear of the immigration authorities.

Whether they’re growing or shrinking, many cities and states across the country take pains to ensure that every resident is included in the census. The counts influence everything from grants for social service agencies to congressional and state legislative districts.

Kristina Barrett, a spokeswoman for the Census Bureau, said there were no national statistics on annexations that precede the census, but any city limit expansions had to be completed by Jan. 1 to be included in this year’s head count.

Not every annexation is done under duress. In Rockford, city officials said the owners of a large apartment complex approached them. That annexation, made official just before the census deadline, added about 2,400 people to the city.

But in Decatur and elsewhere, officials readily admit that the census is a major part of their decision to annex. Scot Wrighton, the city manager, said Decatur could expect to lose more than $850,000 a year in state funds through the coming decade if the census shows a population decline of 5,000 since 2010. (There was reason to worry; the Census Bureau has estimated that Decatur lost almost 5,000 people between 2010 and 2018.)

But the census is not the only reason to add land, Mr. Wrighton said. For decades, Decatur allowed property owners to connect to the city’s water system or to build on the fringes of the city limits without actually becoming part of the city. Adding those properties to Decatur, he said, would help round out “saw-toothed boundaries” that can confuse emergency responders, and would ensure that more people who benefit from city services pay comparable amounts.

“If you live in the city, wouldn’t you want this guy who lives next door but is out of the city to pay his fair share?” said Mr. Wrighton.

But even with the annexations, he acknowledged, Decatur is likely to have fewer residents in 2020 than it did a decade ago.

Out on Decatur’s rural fringes, where cows sometimes mosey up to Dennis Minks’s fence line and where residents have long burned leaves without running afoul of city code, the annexation is seen as an affront to tax bills, but also to the rural lifestyle.

“I feel I was betrayed,” said Mr. Minks, a retired manufacturing plant worker who was annexed into Decatur late last year. He said a city snow plow promptly damaged the grass next to his driveway as it cleared the road. If he had the means to do so, Mr. Minks said he, too, would leave Illinois.


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