Francisco Heredia

City Councilman Francisco Heredia is leading Mesa’s task force to educate residents about the importance of the 2020 census. (Special to the Tribune)

It’s going to be easy to overlook a little postcard that will arrive in your mail next March.

Between the kids, the rent, the job and the busted washing machine, it won’t seem like a big deal. Plus, it’ll probably be hard to find among all the pizza coupons and dental implant ads.

All that notwithstanding, your city – doesn’t matter which city – is hoping you’ll treat that card like a piece of gold. Because in a way, it is.

The card is going to come from the U.S. Census Bureau, and it’s going to ask you some questions about how many people live in your home, your ethnicity and similar stuff.

Whether you respond could help determine how many federal dollars will be used to improve your hometown, and your answers will have a bearing on who ultimately represents you in Congress, the Legislature or even your City Council.

The financial stakes are huge. According to the Maricopa Association of Governments, the federal government distributes $675 billion a year to cities and states, depending on their populations. Arizona gets $13.5 billion of that, and the more people your city counts, the more money it gets.

Based on how many people live where, Arizona’s congressional and legislative district maps will be redrawn after census results are in. The count will also affect the boundaries of Mesa’s six City Council districts.

The official date for the 2020 census is April 1. That seems like a long way off, but some East Valley cities already have been preparing for months.

Mesa, the region’s largest and most diverse municipality, is in that category – and it sees potential threats when it comes to getting an accurate count.

Francisco Heredia, who represents southwest Mesa on the City Council, is leading a 20-plus-person task force that has been meeting since last year to plan census strategies.

Heredia said public apathy and fear of government intrusion can make it hard to count everyone even in a normal year. But this time around the count could be even more difficult, especially in areas with high immigrant populations.

The reason is an effort by the Trump administration to add to this year’s form a question asking whether the respondents are U.S. citizens. 

The administration said the question would be asked in an effort to enforce voting-rights laws. But the American Civil Liberties Union produced evidence in May that the question is part of a Republican strategy to intimidate Hispanics and create electoral advantages for Republicans and non-Hispanic whites.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in late June that the citizenship question cannot be added to the census for now, but the ruling rested on the technical issue of whether the administration had adequately explained its reasons for wanting to include it. 

After the ruling President Trump said he was asking his lawyers to look into whether the 2020 census can be delayed in order to buy time for the question to be included.

Heredia fears the controversy already has had a chilling effect in Mesa, which is 30 percent Hispanic.

“We feel the citizenship question … has had its effect as far as creating some fear with some residents,” Heredia said. “We’re just going to have to do our part to help them understand that it’s a process that every 10 years we take part in. It’s as safe as possible. But it’s definitely going to be a challenge.”

Some people have posted on social media that they won’t participate in the census because it does not contain the citizenship question.

Chandler is noting some of the same difficulties that Heredia sees.

Leah Powell, who is Chandler’s neighborhood resources director, said the city launched its “Complete Count” committee a year ago. Between that group, seven subcommittees and city staff, she estimated 30-35 people are deeply involved in the Chandler census effort.

“We’re focusing on getting to parts of the community that were under-represented in past censuses,” she said. “Across the country in the last census, Latino populations with young children were under-represented. So that’s something we have tried to focus on.”

Powell said Chandler is trying to identify “trusted voices” in various sub-populations to build confidence in the census and overcome fears resulting from the debate over the citizenship question.

Powell said the city has been trying to define exactly how much federal money the city receives in census-allocated programs, but one commonly cited example is Community Development Block Grants.

“Those dollars are used to support public services, they’re used to support keeping people in their homes through housing rehab projects,” Powell said. “We use them for infrastructure projects, we have been doing park improvements with it. So it’s something that residents throughout the city can benefit (from).”

Gilbert is counting on technology to boost its 2020 census numbers.

“We’re excited that the 2020 census will be online for the first time,” said Jennifer Alvarez, who leads Gilbert’s communications department. “Our average age is 33, so we’ve really built our communications efforts around digital tools.”

For example, Alvarez said, about 50,000 of Gilbert’s 80,000 households are tied in to an app called Nextdoor. Using that and other apps such as Twitter and Instagram, the town will communicate how and why to respond to the census.

“Our whole mentality is to meet our residents where they are, and they are online. So the fact that the census is moving online is the perfect thing for us,” Alvarez said.

Alvarez said Gilbert will enlist community leaders and homeowners associations in the effort. “We went through the special census a few years ago,” she said. “So we really understand how to reach our community.”

Queen Creek also will use social media to engage a community that already is enthusiastic about the coming census.

Marnie Schubert, Queen Creek’s director of marketing, communication and recreation, said the town’s “Complete Count” census committee was announced on June 5 and its members will be appearing at community events over the next nine months to spread the word.

“We had a very robust outreach plan for the 2015 mid-decade census,” she said. “In 2010 social media wasn’t even a thing yet. But in 2015 it really was. We’re very fortunate to have a very engaged community, so that very robust plan is going to complement what the Complete Count committee is doing.”

Schubert said Queen Creek doesn’t face the same challenges as some other cities when it comes to hard-to-reach populations. In 2015, she said, residents embraced the census and “understood census is important and why a true count matters.”

Tempe also has been working on the census for months under auspices of its council-appointed Complete Count committee.

“There is so much riding on getting an accurate count of Tempe residents,” Mayor Mark Mitchell said in a statement. “Funding for housing assistance, transportation projects and so much more depends on census results.”

The census efforts by local governments are part of a wider effort called #ICount2020 under auspices of the Maricopa Association of Governments.

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