Census was 2 under par on Tavistock's population, official says

Tavistock Country Club's clubhouse. Census-takers "always get it wrong," Borough Commissioner Tom Grimac says.
Tavistock Country Club's clubhouse. Census-takers "always get it wrong," Borough Commissioner Tom Grimac says.
Posted: August 16, 2011

Looking at the most recent U.S. census data for Tavistock, the smallest municipality in New Jersey, you might wonder whether a biblical plague had rolled through.

Between 2000 and 2010, the census reports, the Camden County borough's population fell 79 percent, from 24 to five, and the number of homes went from seven to three.

Standing on the driving range there last week - most of the quarter-square-mile town is taken up by the Tavistock Country Club - course superintendent Tom Grimac laughed when asked what disasters had befallen the place in the last decade.

"They always get it wrong," Grimac said of the decennial head count. "Some years it's 20; some years it's five. They always miss me. My house is right smack in the middle of the golf course."

It's not unusual for towns to question the census, whose population figures determine how state and federal money is distributed and how political districts are carved up.

But Tavistock is in an unusual position in that it can calculate its population in the time it takes to place a golf ball on a tee.

In fact, the borough now has seven residents, Grimac reports, counting his neighbors on his fingers. That's one fewer than last year, he says.

Back in 2000? "At most there were nine or 10."

And Tavistock has four houses, plus the clubhouse, same as always, says Grimac, who doubles as a borough commissioner.

Walking the streets - or, rather,  street  - of Tavistock, one can see how a census-taker might get confused.

Nothing distinguishes the borough from Haddonfield, to the north.

Until 1921, Tavistock was Haddonfield. But then a group of golfers from a now-defunct country club decided to buy the land on which Tavistock lies, incorporate it as borough, and lay out the sand traps and fairways.

The official reason is that they wanted to play golf on Sunday, an activity then restricted under Haddonfield's blue laws.

Historians point out that alcohol sales also were banned in Haddonfield, a tradition that continues, and the golfers might have wanted to enjoy a martini after their round.

"No comment," Grimac said, smiling.

Counting 308.7 million people, as the government did last year, is no simple task.

The Census Bureau aims to mail surveys to every residence in the country. But fewer than three-quarters respond, leaving it to send legions of "enumerators" to try to figure out how many children you have and whether there's Hawaiian blood in your family tree.

That works out to 77.2 million people the census-takers have to chase down. And they have to catch them when they're at home and not hiding in the basement.

When all else fails, "the census taker will talk to a proxy, a neighbor, to try and get the information," said bureau spokesman. "No matter how small the town, the intention is to count every resident."

For most municipalities, being undercounted can have big implications in terms of congressional representation or how much pothole-repair money they receive.

So far this year, 48 cities and towns have challenged the census' 2010 findings, including Miami and Washington.

But in Tavistock, there are more pressing issues than whether the government thought five people lived there instead of eight.

Cigar night is coming up, a highlight of the social season. And the hot, humid nights have wreaked havoc on Tavistock's greens and fairways.

"It's terrible for the grass, very unhealthy," Grimac said.

Contact staff writer James Osborne at 856-779-3876 or jaosborne@phillynews.com.

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