2020 Census

Signs posted around Sonora in late 2020 encourage Tuolumne County residents to get counted in that year's national census.

Tuolumne County officials must create new boundaries for supervisorial districts following the release of 2020 Census data later this year, though projected population growth of a little more than 300 people over the last 10 years suggest very little changes in the demographics of the county.

The timing of the data’s scheduled release sometime  before the end of September will give the county Board of Supervisors only about six weeks to hold various public meetings, receive public input and draw out the new maps before the final map is approved prior to the end of the year, “ Debi Bautista, the county clerk, auditor-controller and registrar of voters, said at a board meeting on May 18.

Bautista told the board that the redistricting would likely not be a very complicated process because of the expected limited population growth. 

Projected numbers based on annual estimates from the California Department of Finance indicated a county population of 51,511 people in 2010 and 51,836 in 2020, a net increase of 325 residents over the past decade. The figures do not include inmates at Sierra Conservation Center state prison in Jamestown.

"I was amazed that in 10 years we only grew by 325 people," she said. 

The value projected by the state finance department is expected to be very close to the official value released by the United States Census Bureau later this year.

Tuolumne County has shown population growth in each decennial count since 1930, though it's the meager growth rate of the past two censuses that has some public and private officials concerned about the overall health of the county.

Between 1960 and 1990, Tuolumne County showed its largest growth from 14,404 to 48,456. But between 2000 and 2010, the population growth rate stalled to 1.6%, growing from only 54,501 to 55,365, according to census data. 

Those latest counts include inmates at Sierra Conservation Center state prison in Jamestown, regardless of whether they are originally from another county.

Bautista identified a state requirement of four public meetings before the final approval and how the process could be scheduled. The data was expected to be released in September, though updated prison numbers which must be included in the restristicing would make the final count available around mid to late October. 

The county plans to have a meeting in June or July prior to the public input period and will schedule the next meetings before the December deadline when the numbers are received.

As of May 2, there are 7,025 registered voters in District 1; 7,065 registered voters in District 2; 7069 registered voters in District 3; 7,290 registered voters in District 4 and 7,311 registered voters in District 5.

The stagnated population growth was in many ways exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw business closures and a diaspora from the public school system.

"It was really in the 90s or so that we started seeing a drop in our student population," said Tuolumne County Superintendent of Schools Cathy Parker. "With this trend of decreasing enrollment, we have taken notice of adjusting staffing at our schools based on that information." 

Parker identified the 1997-98 school year as a watermark year for when an incremental decline began to occur. That year there were 8,484 students enrolled in public schools in the county. By 2000, there were 7,947 students.

"We start losing about 100 kids every year," she said. "We are on a downward trend from that point forward."

In 2008-09, the population dropped to 6,977. Parker said it remained on a downward trend, though relatively stable, at about 6,100 in 2017-18.

The COVID-19 pandemic saw the school lose about 350 students, dropping to 5,686 (the enrollment count is done annually on Oct. 1). Since then, projections show increases by about 200, though some of those students may not return, she noted. 

"That's pretty reflective of the changing demographics of Tuolumne County," she said. "We lost families out of the area. People just moved. They had no jobs, they had no place to live. Some people explore homeschooling and some people stick with that." 

Public charter schools, like Gold Rush Charter, are reflected in the total count, though private schools like Mother Lode Adventist Junior Academy and Sierra Waldorf School do not. 

The crux of population decline is based primarily around funding provided to schools based upon enrollment, which is why Parker noted district budgets are required to include three-year projections based on expected enrollment data.

Most districts are funded through the “local control funding formula,” which is guided by enrollment. Some districts below a certain enrollment receive basic aid, which is based on property taxes. Basic aid districts can also receive additional funding through other sources based on enrollment, as well. 

"As the census comes full circle, sooner rather than later, we will be looking at trustee areas," Parker said. "We will go through our process for drawing new boundary lines for our trustee areas, and we will be starting soon." 

Business has also been impacted by the progressive decline in growth rate, though some officials hope an upturn in population in the next five years will foment due to post-pandemic work-from-home opportunities in rural areas. 

"The Tuolumne County Chamber of Commerce has seen a decline in members,” Parkyre Zelinsky-Salcedo, the organization’s CEO, said in an email on Monday. “However, the pandemic greatly contributed to that decline this past year.”

The chamber currently has about 210 members, Zelinsky-Salcedo said. 

Despite the decline, Zelinsky-Salcedo said new business openings and established business adaptability have contributed to some measure of optimism about the future of the economic and commercial health of the county. 

“Businesses in a community as small as ours will continually face unique obstacles affecting the volume of business they do as new challenges arise everyday," she said. "It’s times like these, when businesses are strategic about their marketing and strategize with their fellow business owners to create a community to face these challenges together, that we truly see them succeed regardless of the population." 

Mike Lemke, president of Miramont Homes and president of the Tuolumne County Building Association, noted a cyclical obstacle for population growth: limited opportunities meant less new homes and ultimately less population growth.

"There is a life line between the community, population, school, business and housing,” he said. “We are a very desirable community to live. However, we have limited housing opportunities in this area.”

Lemke said younger generations were leaving the county because of limited growth and lack of available employment or housing options. He said the problem was further exacerbated by state requirements that had a significant negative impact on rural communities. 

"The state bureaucratic requirements are well intended, but the laws are written by the cities and not the rural areas that have unique rural characteristics," he said. 

Contact Giuseppe Ricapito at gricapito@uniondemocrat.net or (209) 588-4526.