When the first 2010 census data is released later this month, Long Islanders will begin to learn how they've changed in the last decade - how they've grown in number, diversity, even age. And those numbers could translate into big dollars, changing federally funded projects ranging from remedial school classes to downtown redevelopment.
"The census numbers affect funding for everything from Medicaid to transit aid and to social service assistance," Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy said. "Every dollar we get from the feds for these programs not only help the recipient, but our taxpayers who would otherwise have to fill that gap."
The census is expected to show Long Island's 2.87-million population growing slightly, but even small changes can mean significant gains or losses in federal aid.
"Hundreds of millions of dollars the federal government allocates to states for housing, hunger and homeless relief, and a whole range of programs" are affected, said John Imhof, Nassau's Social Services commissioner.
Challenging census data
Fear of potentially losing federal dollars drove Nassau and Suffolk counties to successfully challenge the Census Bureau's 2007 population estimates. The challenge increased Long Island's population by 105,000, Levy recalled.
"If the actual census confirms our revised estimates, it could mean an additional $95 million to Suffolk, in the form of federal aid over the next decade," he said. That figure is about $70 million for Nassau, Levy said.
The Nassau town has used nearly $1 million in aid since 2008 to help finance its affordable housing programs, she said. Hempstead has built more than 200 low-cost single-family homes in Roosevelt alone, Murray said, and used additional aid to renovate storefronts along Nassau Road.
Census data also influences federal school aid formulas. Title I, the largest chunk of federal school funding, provides nearly $38 million to Long Island school districts for remedial instruction in reading and math, said Gary Bixhorn, chief operating officer for Eastern Suffolk BOCES.
"There's a lot of money at stake," said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of Hofstra University's National Center for Suburban Studies. "If the census shows there are fewer people living in a community than really do, and that they are wealthier than they really are, it could mean a loss of federal and other funds."
No surprises expected
In 2008, Long Island received $3 billion in federal funding, according to a Brookings Institution report early this year analyzing the $400 billion distributed annually.
Local officials don't expect surprises in the population data. According to the Census Bureau's annual estimates in the past 10 years, Nassau County's population in 2009 was up nearly 2 percent since 2000 - to 1,357,429 people - while Suffolk County's was estimated to have grown by 7 percent, to 1,518,475 people.
The modest growth "is just reflective of the ongoing decades-long migration of people from the Northeast to the South and Southwest," said Seth Forman, chief planner for the Long Island Regional Planning Council.
Census numbers are "important when you're talking about knowing what kind of services to provide, where police stations need to be located, or where housing could be constructed, and where social services agencies have to be available . . . even where roads need to be built or bus stops placed," Forman said.