Confusion over a little-known survey being conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau has left one Colorado Springs woman feeling harassed and fearful she may be fined or worse for refusing to participate.
Jann Cole said a representative claiming to be from the Census Bureau appeared on her doorstep about a month ago, and said her address had been selected to participate in the American Community Survey.
The new survey is designed to keep pace with the demographics and population trends across the United States more frequently than the traditional 10-year census.
Cole had never heard of it. Though the employee, Lynne Nielsen, wore a badge identifying herself as a representative of the Census Bureau, Cole said she was suspicious because Nielsen would not give her a copy of the questionnaire to review. Further, she would only provide a sketchy explanation of how and why she was chosen to participate in the survey and would only vaguely describe the types of questions that would be asked, Cole said.
"If they can't be clear to me about what they want, then why should I be clear to them in my answers?" she asked.
Suspected a scam
Cole was further irritated when Nielsen asked to come inside her home to conduct the interview. A man who had accompanied her remained in the van that was parked in the driveway of her home, she said.
"Out of the blue, here comes a strange woman and a man in a van saying, 'I'm with the Census Bureau and this is what we want'," Cole said. "She said by law I had to give her all the information she wanted."
Cole said her suspicions were further aroused because, to her knowledge, the official census was conducted last year. None of her friends or co-workers had ever heard of the American Community Survey either.
And, she said, Nielsen declined to give Cole a copy of the survey questions to review, but urged her to call a toll-free telephone number to verify the legitimacy of the survey. Cole, however, was reluctant, suspecting a scam. Since Cole had a sore foot, Nielsen agreed to come back another day.
Clipped with a bobby pin
Cole said at her request, Nielsen subsequently left a packet of pamphlets describing the American Community Survey at her house. But, they were clipped together with a bobby pin, along with a handwritten note indicating that Nielsen was very low on supplies and would need the pamphlets returned. Cole was still dubious.
"I asked her when she first visited, 'What if I don't want to participate?'" Cole said. "She told me that under Title 13 I am required to by law."
The statute states that people who refuse to participate in the U.S. Census can face a fine of up to $100 and/or jail time.
"She kind of scared me -- to come to your home and ask to reveal personal information, that's an invasion and it was intimidating," Cole said.
Nielsen maintains that she was not trying to harass or intimidate Cole, but was merely trying to do her job. Cole's address was chosen as one of 6,000 Colorado Springs addresses to participate in the study this year. The results of the study will be released this summer.
"I never, ever, said she might be jailed," Nielsen said. "What I told her is it was required by law. We have to make every attempt to get information, but no one has ever been prosecuted for not taking a survey."
The information is important
According to the U.S. Census procedure, surveys are first mailed to people's homes, asking that they be filled out and mailed back to the agency. If someone does not respond by mail, a census representative is dispatched and an attempt is made to obtain the information for the survey. The bureau estimates a 98 percent success rate in collecting data.
Nielsen said she hasn't heard directly from Cole, and will continue to attempt to contact her unless Cole tells her she refuses to participate in the survey.
"We honestly believe the information is important and necessary and genuinely important to the community," Nielsen said.
Cole, meanwhile, maintains that she never received the survey in the mail.
Attempts to obtain a copy of the American Community Survey's questions from the regional Census Bureau office in Denver were also unsuccessful. Janet Johnson, who works in the survey's division, refused to release a copy of the questions, claiming, "We're not supposed to give questions out."
On Tuesday, Greg Abbott, an American Community Survey coordinator in Washington, apologized for the confusion about the survey and its purpose. The survey questions, he said, are not confidential, and the survey is posted at the U.S. Census Bureau's Web site, and can be directly downloaded at www.census.gov/acs/ www/download/acs1_01.pdf.
Intrusive in nature
The questions range from what time people leave for work in the morning to the ethnicity of all of the people living at a certain address. They are designed to help determine everything from traffic patterns for road improvements to day care and programs for low-income and poor families that may be needed in neighborhoods and communities, Abbott said.
"Sure the questions are intrusive in nature, but I tell people how important this information is to the community and there is total confidentiality, and that's absolutely true," he said. "It's the information that's important, not the person."
The American Community Survey will be conducted annually, and is designed to eventually replace the long form of the census, which caused controversy last year because of the similarly personal nature of the questions. Addresses that are picked during a given year will not be chosen again for at least five more, he said.
Abbott said he and other Census Bureau employees recognize that no one -- including Jann Cole and others chosen to participate -- seems to have ever heard of the American Community Survey. It's a problem, he said, that they're working to correct.
"We're working on a series of letters that will be sent out to media, to mayors, to chiefs of police, chambers of Commerce, Congress, legislatures, governors, everyone we can think of, alerting them and asking them to have information available for people."
At the request of Colorado Springs Councilman Ted Eastburn, City Manager Jim Mullen has ordered a complete report of how his staff recommended and subsequently purchased an $8.1 million parcel of open space that could become little more than a tall grass prairie buffer for an upscale, gated, waterfront development around Big Johnson Reservoir.
When the City Council approved the Trails, Open Space and Parks (TOPS) taxpayer-funded purchase last Aug. 22, city leaders extolled it because they claimed it would forever protect the prime waterfowl and wildlife area surrounding the Big Johnson Reservoir southeast of Colorado Springs.
But the Fountain Mutual Irrigation Company, which owns the reservoir and an estimated 130 to 200 acres immediately surrounding it, is entertaining bids from as many as 10 developers who envision lakefront projects at Big Johnson.
Fountain Mutual is considering selling the property to help pay for a needed $3 million to $5 million dredging of the reservoir to increase water capacity, said Dick Janitell, president of the company's board of directors.
One proposal called Waterview Lake Estates, envisioned by developer Dan Tibbetts, would be an upscale, gated community of lakefront three- and four-story homes at the water's edge. The project, still in its planning stages, promises innumerable amenities including water sports, private docks and lasting protection -- thanks to the city -- with a permanent open-space buffer that would protect their "little piece of heaven" from future surrounding development.
"We sure think it would be a neat little spot; it's certainly pretty with the ducks and the geese out there," said Tibbetts, a partner in Legendary Homes.
Too many problems
But Councilman Richard Skorman believes that the hurdles any potential developers would face trying to build at the reservoir could be insurmountable. Last Friday, Skorman said he had no prior understanding that the land around the Big Johnson Reservoir could be a target for development when he joined a unanimous Council in approving the purchase.
But Skorman believes that the soil around the reservoir might be too soft to sustain development, the water quality too poor, that the area is in an undesirable airplane flyover zone and that the dam of the reservoir might require expensive improvements. Any development project, noted Skorman, would require a zoning change (the land is currently zoned agricultural) which would require approval from the Board of County Commissioners.
In addition, Skorman pointed out that the city utilities department currently holds a lease agreement with the Fountain Mutual, due to expire in 5 1/2 years, that would hamper the developers' short-term prospects.
However, Janitell noted that there is nothing in the lease agreement that prohibits development around the lake, and said the company could begin dredging the reservoir as soon as this year.
Other City Council members have complained that they, like Skorman, were unaware of any development possibilities when they approved the TOPS purchase.
Councilman Ted Eastburn is demanding to know why, if city staff knew about the possibility the property could be developed, the City Council was not informed when weighing the decision to approve the purchase, which constitutes well over a year's worth of TOPS sales tax--generated open-space funds.
Eastburn wants answers
In a memo dated Friday, May 25 and obtained by the Independent, Eastburn indicated "[It's] highly unlikely I would have voted to purchase the property if I had known shoreline development was an option."
Specifically, Eastburn wants to know the extent to which the City applied due diligence regarding development opportunities.
In the memo, addressed to Paul Butcher, the manager of the city's Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services Department which oversees the TOPS funds, Eastburn launched a multitude of questions he wants answered. Among the queries: Did staff understand this? Were contingency plans made? What involvement did Colorado Springs Utilities have in reviewing the purchase since they held a lease? What was city attorney's office's involvement? Were they aware of any of this on the front end?
"Please review the coordination of the various [city, county and state] agencies involved (or lack thereof), real-estate, parks, TOPS committee, [Colorado Springs Utilities], city attorney, board of county commissioners, state, private contiguous land owners, etc.," Eastburn requested. "If indeed staff was on top of all of this, why wasn't council fully advised?"
In the event that Colorado Springs cannot stop a development from occurring around the reservoir, Eastburn suggested that the City should ask voters -- as would be required by the TOPS sales tax mandate -- to approve the sale of the land, at a possible profit, and use the money to buy a more desirable open-space parcel.
Lastly, Eastburn wants to know what lessons have been learned in a process that allowed the City to buy land designated for open-space preservation in the county government's jurisdiction.
"This raises the issue of use of city taxpayer dollars for purchase of open space in the county without council say in contiguous land use decisions," Eastburn wrote.
Caught by surprise
Though the memo was directed to Butcher, City Manager Jim Mullen responded to Eastburn in a Monday, May 28 e-mail. In that communique, Mullen insisted that all inquiries related to the Big Johnson purchase be made through him.
"Their (sic) are legitimate questions that need to be answered and Paul [Butcher] will be doing a report for me on that whole issue," Mullen wrote. "I assure you if there is any followup to be had on the matter I will take the appropriate action with the staff."
On Tuesday, Mullen, through a secretary, referred all questions to Butcher.
The parks manager said that at the time of the purchase, no one considered that the lakefront would ever be developed. City representatives, he said, met with Janitell and he informed them that the land was not for sale.
"When he told us the land was not for sale, from our perspective that was the end of the conversation," Butcher said.
Butcher said his department was surprised when they learned that development proposals are being circulated.
However, Butcher and Terry Putman, who directly oversees the TOPS acquisition projects, defended the purchase of the Big Johnson open space -- regardless of any possible future development at the shoreline.
In a May 22 memo to Butcher that in part explains the rationale of the Big Johnson sale, Putman said, "Although the proximity of the reservoir was a bonus, it was not the reason the property was purchased."
In the memo, Putman suggested that the issue was not really related to TOPS, but one that the city's Water Resources Department should handle. Still, he said, he would research the matter.
It was "very surprising to receive a copy of the brochure offering lots for sale," Putman wrote.