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Consequences of the count: Smithville census shows significant decrease. Officials disagree

SMITHVILLE • During the last decade, Smithville lost nearly half its population. Statistically, at least.

Results of the 2020 census, released last August, put the small Monroe County town’s population at 509 residents. That’s a steep drop from the previous count in 2010, which pegged the population at 942 people.

If the count is accurate, during the 10-year span, Smithville lost nearly 46% of its citizenry, one of the steepest population drops in the entire state.

But local leaders are questioning those results, which they believe represent a sizable undercount in the town’s population resulting from low participation in the latest census, while also fearing the consequences they may bring to a small town that, at least on paper, is getting even smaller.

Census changes and consequences

According to the results of the 2020 census, Smithville’s population decreased by 45.97%. The town is ranked 356 out of 358 in percentage change in total population within the state. Only Meridian Station, which dropped from 1,090 people to 581 (46.7%) and Walnut Grove, which decreased from 1,911 to 510 (73.31%), saw greater percentage losses to their populations.

The drastic drop in population is of particular concern to Kim Johnson, the town’s clerk. Diligent and organized, Johnson has always done her part by completing the census, but she didn’t realize its importance until she took her position with the town in 2016.

“It’s just a plethora of grants, and they all have different criteria to receive them,” Johnson said of programs that base their distribution of funds on data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

For a small town like Smithville, there’s a direct correlation between population and federal support through grant programs. Census results dictate shares of federal funding, including grants and financial support, that states, counties and communities receive, according to the U.S. Census website.

For example, according to research conducted and released by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2017, the federal government distributed more than $675 billion to 132 programs in 2015 using census data as its basis to determine need and eligibility. In 2009, using the results of the 2000 census, the amount of federal funds distributed was just over $400 billion.

From one census to the next, federal funds jumped by more than 60% based on data from the count.

Johnson knew the lower Smithville’s population, the less federal funding they would be eligible to receive. When the 2020 census showed a total population drop of 433 people, it immediately brought to mind some of the purchases the town wouldn’t be able to make.

“This will affect us for the next 10 years,” Johnson said.

The range of programs that use census data as its basis is broad. In rural communities and small towns like Smithville, funds distributed using population counts can cover everything from wastewater disposal to business development to support of local fire departments.

It didn’t take long for town officials to see the consequences of the lower count. According to Mayor Phil Goodwin, the town is already adjusting their plans for the coming years based on the smaller population and the lower federal funding it represents.

“One thing (it) was going to buy was new patrol cars,” Goodwin said. With the population count as low as it is, the mayor said the town won't be able to get the new vehicles.

Other projects town officials originally planned to be funded with federal grants based on census data included the purchase of park and recreation equipment, improvements to water infrastructure, and various economic development projects.

With funding needs for schools, roads and building repairs, there’s few areas in Smithville that the lower count won’t affect.

Smithville was growing, then tragedy struck

Smithville’s population drop was expected; it’s the size of the drop that’s caught town officials off guard.

There’s little doubt in Johnson’s mind the decrease in population represents, at least in part, the lingering effects of the April 27, 2011, tornado. Prior to the storm — which destroyed 150 homes, 14 businesses and four churches, killed 16 people and injured 40 others — Smithville was growing.

Results of the 2000 census put Smithville’s population at 882 people. In 2010, the count placed the population at 942 — an increase of nearly 7%.

Johnson estimates they lost 300 people in the immediate aftermath of the tornado. In August 2012, the town conducted its own unofficial population count and determined they had an estimated population of 630 residents, or roughly 24% more people than the official count would state eight years later.

Smithville Police Chief Darwin Hathcock headed the effort, going door to door asking people for the number of people within the household.

Each year, the U.S. Census Bureau releases a population count estimate based on current data on births, deaths, and migration to calculate population change since the most recent decennial census. In 2020, that initial estimate put Smithville’s population at 717 — approximately 41% greater than the official count released last August.

To town officials, the higher initial population estimate seems closer to the truth. Signs of growth are everywhere in Smithville. Since the 2011 tornado, approximately 95 new buildings have popped up. Those include seven businesses and three churches, based on Smithville’s building permits and number of water meters. The rest are residential.

These aren’t empty buildings, Johnson said. People are moving to Smithville.

“Before those houses are even completed, they’re sold, and the same thing with our rental properties … they have a waiting list of renters,” Johnson said.

Sheila Bennett, a second-term Smithville alderperson and mail carrier, can attest to the growth. She said she sees few vacant properties along her daily route, suggesting, at least anecdotally, that the town’s population is holding steady, if not growing.

Census response challenges, efforts

Prior to the 2020 census, Smithville officials had a plan of action to help bolster participation and garner the most accurate count possible.

Since certain state and federal grants are more inclined to help bigger populations because of their revenue, Johnson said having a smaller population puts the town at risk of being seen as “not grant worthy.”

For a town of Smithville’s size, an undercount to its population can be devastating.

“For bigger metropolises like Jackson or Tupelo, it doesn’t affect them as much as it affects us,” Johnson said.

Knowing the importance of an accurate count, Johnson applied for a grant with the National League of Cities to promote census participation prior to the 2020 census. The town had plans to host a hot dog bash or similar event as a way to draw people in and encourage them to complete the census.

As it did with so many facets of life, the pandemic forced officials to change their strategy. The money instead went to purchase small tablets and hosting a census day event at town hall. City officials were on-hand to help people fill out their census and answer questions they might have.

No one came.

The city tried to spread the word on social media and by giving out Census Bureau-provided merchandise. The census was available online, and the Census Bureau distributed paper versions of the census for people to return via the mail.

When response was lower than they estimated, officials theorized it might be because people don’t realize the importance of filling out the census.

“They just don’t realize … what it’s costing the town, not filling it out,” Goodwin said. “It’s costing us.”

Facing tangible consequences for the population drop recorded in the 2020 census, Smithville officials are already strategizing for the 2030 census cycle. They plan to work with the National League of Cities and the Census Bureau directly to educate people about the importance of the census, how it affects their town, and the funding of different grants and city departments.

Johnson said she hopes to incorporate incentives to encourage people to participate in town-hosted census events, and Bennett also thinks they’ll return to providing information online, and use door-to-door outreach to get the word out.

The key to ensuring Smithville’s population doesn’t see another drastic, statistical drop is to make people aware of how important it is to be counted.

“I guess a lot of people don’t know what all it entails, why they need to do the census,” Bennett said. “Go door to door or give them a little flier and tell them, ‘This is why we needed this census.’”

Adrienne Brown-David, an artist who lives in Water Valley, uses photographs when she paints portraits, rather than live models.

Legislative leader introduces bill to allow some felons to regain voting rights

JACKSON • A Northeast Mississippi lawmaker is attempting to tweak a portion of existing law to allow some formerly convicted felons to have their voting rights restored, but a civil rights attorney believes the proposal is flawed.

House Judiciary B Chairman Nick Bain, R-Corinth, filed House Bill 630 that would allow former felons who have had their crimes expunged, or removed from their criminal record, to register to vote.

“This process would simplify suffrage restoration and make it easier for formerly incarcerated felons,” Bain told the Daily Journal.

Under the Mississippi Constitution, people convicted of any of 10 felonies — including perjury, arson and bigamy — lose their voting privileges for life. A 2009 opinion from the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office expanded the list of disqualifying felonies to 22.

For someone to have their suffrage restored, a lawmaker has to introduce a bill on their behalf, and two-thirds of lawmakers in both legislative chambers must agree to it. A person can also seek a gubernatorial pardon.

Mississippi is the only state that requires legislative action to regain the right to vote.

Under Bain’s proposal, people convicted of a felony who have the crime successfully expunged from their record would automatically be allowed to register to vote. Current state law requires a person to petition a court to expunge a crime from their criminal record five years after they have completed their sentence requirements and paid all of their fines.

Paloma Wu, the deputy director of impact litigation at the Mississippi Center for Justice, said that Bain’s bill, though well intended, complicates the criminal justice system even further and would open the door for more crimes to disenfranchise people.

“The bill does much more bad than good for people who have or could lose their vote for life due to criminal conviction, including after sentence-completion,” Wu said, adding that Bain’s proposal would negatively impact poor Mississipains and Black citizens.

One issue is that the expungement route won't provide for sufficient types of crimes that directly lead to a person's suffrage getting restored, suffrage restoration proponents say.

Current state law exempts felonies such as arson, embezzlement, driving under the influence for a third time and about 26 other crimes from being expunged.

The law also allows for people to only have one felony expunged from their record.

Defendants would also have to seek out the advice of an attorney to help them navigate the court process and pay court fees — a luxury that lower income Mississippians can’t always afford.

Wu suggested the Legislature should pass some version of a catchall bill that restores the voting rights of former and future convicted felons who have completed all the requirements set out in their sentencing order from a court.

Around 9.6% of Mississippi citizens have been disenfranchised from voting, according to a report from the Sentencing Project, a national research and advocacy organization focused on criminal justice issues.

The underlying issue with Mississippi’s one-of-a-kind suffrage restoration process is that it is spotty and relies on the year-to-year whims of elected officials.

Rep. Jody Steverson, R-Ripley, last year, for example, filed a bill to restore suffrage rights to Chester Allen Butler, who was convicted of arson in Tippah County in 1996. Butler was sentenced to five years probation, which he completed in 2001.

Even though he completed his sentencing requirements 20 years ago, Butler has not been able to participate in a Mississippi election since then.

The House last year agreed to restore Butler’s voting rights, but the bill died in the Senate — a common pattern for recent suffrage bills.

Other lawmakers have filed suffrage restoration reform bills this year that would simply allow former felons to petition the court, instead of lawmakers, to have their voting rights restored once they’ve completed their sentences.

Voting rights and criminal justice advocates for years have called on state leaders to change Mississippi’s unique system and create a more consistent way that would allow people like Butler to vote, but the Legislature has remained recalcitrant to any substantive reform.

Since Bain leads the committee that has jurisdiction over reforms to the state’s criminal code, it’s unlikely that he’ll take up a suffrage restoration bill different from his own proposal.

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Senate passes teacher pay bill, now heads to House for consideration

JACKSON • The Mississippi Senate on Friday quickly passed a teacher pay raise bill that would increase teacher salaries an average of $4,700 over the next two years.

The bill passed without a single senator opposing it, and nearly every lawmaker in the chamber asked to be added as a co-author to the measure. The legislation now heads to the House, where it’s fate is uncertain.

The bill, authored by Senate Education Committee Chairman Dennis Debar, raises the base pay for teachers with a bachelor’s degree to $39,000 next year. The year after that, the base salary for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree would increase to $40,000. The base pay for teachers with advanced degrees would be more.

“Teachers open the gates of the minds of our future,” Republican Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann said in a statement. “I am thankful for the work of Chairman DeBar in listening to teachers to devise a pay system that begins the long necessary journey to monetarily rewarding their efforts.”

Under the proposal, every year a teacher continues to work in Mississippi, he or she would receive a $500 pay bump. Teachers would get around a $1,300 pay increase for every five years they continue teaching in the state.

Debar, R-Leakesville, said that data shows a large percentage of teachers leave the state within the first five years of their career to receive higher pay in another state. The purpose of DeBar’s bill is to attract teachers to the state and retain them.

“This invests $200 million in teacher pay raises over the next two years,” DeBar said.

Now that the Senate has agreed to the legislation, both the House and the Senate have advanced their own teacher pay raise proposals.

The House last week voted to give raises to teachers from $4,000 to $6,000.

The two GOP-controlled chambers and Republican Gov. Tate Reeves must agree on a single plan for it to become law.

DeBar previously told the Daily Journal the specifics of a teacher pay raise bill would likely be hammered out in a conference committee later in the legislative session.

“The House has come out with a great plan too,” DeBar said. “We’ll look at their plan and see if we can come to an agreement. The bottom line is, teachers are going to win this session and get a pay raise.”

Mississippi pays its public school teachers some of the lowest salaries in the nation.

The starting salary for a Mississippi teacher with a bachelor’s degree is currently $37,000, according to the state Department of Education. Teachers with advanced degrees and more experience are paid more.

Another compounding problem with the low salaries is the rising cost of insurance premiums for teachers.

At a teacher session in Tupelo last year, several teachers complained that the pay scale codified in state law does not adequately account for the yearly percentage increase in insurance premiums and similar rising costs.

DeBar’s bill does not address the insurance issue, but he said at an Appropriations Committee meeting that he looks to address that in the future.