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The 500 difference

Census conundrum causes heated Houston debate: When population becomes political

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Courtesy of Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

In a city of over two million people, you wouldn't think a matter of 500 people one way or the other would make much difference. Oh, but it does.

It matters when the official 2010 census count of the Houston population sits at 2,099,451. That's several thousand less than anticipated and 549 people short of the magical 2.1 million number at which the Houston charter requires the city to create two new single-district council members, taking the total membership on city council from 14 to 16.

And since Mayor Annise Parker is already challenging the count based on what she says are boundary errors and some obvious miscounts — like blocks with large apartment complexes that showed no residents — it's undetermined whether the census estimate will be amended to reflect a population over 2.1 million.

The mayor's plan to push ahead with redistricting and add two new council members is a tough sell among the city council. Not only would new members dilute their voting power, adding new offices and staff would cost extra money in a year when budgets are being slashed.

"It's adding more staff when we're talking about laying people off," said city council member Brenda Stardig during a contentious council meeting on Wednesday. Stardig and several other members suggested that since the census count stayed under 2.1 million, the city is under no obligation to go out of its way to amend that data and incur the additional expense of creating the new seats.

But as city attorney David M. Feldman pointed out, Houston has been sued once before in 2009 for failing to address the council seat requirements, and failure to add them during this term is "virtually guaranteed" to result in another lawsuit.

Additionally, Houston will already go through the expense of redistricting this year because the population counts between the districts are substantially different, another issue the charter deems taboo. So while those who want to delay the additional council seats can point to budget savings now, the counter argument is that it will likely cost more in the long run as the city redistricts with the current amount of seats this year, then redistricts again in the near future with the additional districts while also defending itself against a lawsuit.

But with office start-up costs of at least $800,000 and an additional one to two million dollars in expenditures required to finance the additional staff, delay might be the city's only budgetary choice.

After an hour of heated debate (including a fair amount of parliamentary debate on whether or not to have debate), the redistricting issue was tabled until the next City Council meeting.

So how many people live in Houston? At City Hall, that's a political question.

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