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Kenneth City official takes census into her own hands

Here in Kenneth City, town leaders count the population by the hundreds, not the thousands. And sometimes they count it one at a time. During the six years she served on the Town Council, Nancy Ann Baker worried that federal officials underestimated the number of people who call Kenneth City home.

So Baker took matters into her own hands _ and feet. She went to work for the U.S. Census Bureau last summer and saw to it that every last resident of Kenneth City was counted.

"I was walking through the hot sun all summer long," Baker recalls. "But it was worth it."

How much was it worth? Oh, about 118 _ people, that is.

"I wouldn't be surprised if she found most of them herself," said Barbara Gilberg, mayor of nearby _ and nearly as small _ South Pasadena. Like officials from other cities and towns, Baker has worked with the Pinellas County Council of Mayors, which Gilberg led until this week.

Kenneth City holds 4,462 people on a piece of land just over a square mile. In 1980, the last time the census was taken, officials counted 4,344 residents. A good deal of them are retired.

Baker, who is a junior member of the Kenneth City council at age 69, moved to the town after retiring as a schoolteacher and librarian in Pittsburgh. She served two three-year terms on the Town Council between 1984 and 1990, but the town's charter required her to sit out the year in 1991.

"I felt that the last count they took wasn't correct," Baker said. "And we get more money when we have more people.

"I was interested in getting the count up; and we got it up," she added.

How? Through sheer persistence.

Some residents were not home during the day when Baker visited, so she returned at night. And if they were not home at night, she came back on the weekends.

"We were allowed to go back three times and leave notes with our name and telephone number," Baker said. "If they didn't call back during the week, I went back on Saturday, because I knew they weren't working. Even Sunday."

In March, Baker was returned to office, where she will have a say over how the community should spend the new money that will come from a growth in population. Neither the mayor, Lester Eshleman, nor the town clerk, Joan D. Musgrave, have any idea how much of a windfall will come their way.

And neither does James Holmes, regional director of the U.S. Census Bureau in Atlanta. A variety of state and federal programs award money according to the population of cities and towns, Holmes said.

"So many programs that are dollar-driven are totally based on population," Holmes said. "In terms of what dollars they would get by an increase of 120, I really don't know. Obviously, it does have some significance."

Money goes a long way in Kenneth City. The town has no debt, a healthy tax base _ and practically nothing most residents would consider a problem.

"We don't seem to have any problems whatsoever," Eshleman said. "We get a few complaints now and then about an unlicensed car sitting around. Once in a while people go north and their grass gets a little tall. . . . Once in a great while we get a complaint about debris in a yard.

"We try to keep a close watch on codes so the town is kept excellent," he added.

If it sounds as if people take pride in tiny Kenneth City _ that is because they do. Especially Baker.

"She's a very effective councilwoman," said former Mayor Alfred Wells. "I felt what she did went above and beyond what was required of her. She takes pride in this city."

The way Gilberg sees it, Baker is the kind of person who challenges the stereotype of some retired people as uninvolved and disinterested. Gilberg says she frequently runs into retired men and women who perform hours of volunteer work, in addition to serving on city and town councils.

"She has got a tremendous amount of energy, that woman," Gilberg said. "She attends meetings. She is simply always there. She is definitely of the worker-bee group."

And that is the group Holmes likes to draw from most when hiring census takers, he said.

Holmes said it is not unusual to find city and town officials working as census takers in small communities. He met a few of them himself while working for the Census Bureau in the Midwest in 1980, he said.

"So often, most people assume _ and rightfully so, in some cases _ that the census is a massive process. And it is," Holmes said. "But if you look at the census in its simplest terms, it is a local process done by local people for local benefits.

"She (Baker) in essence epitomizes the message that we're trying to get across: the ultimate success of the process hinges on local participation, taking jobs or filling out questionnaires. That's not something that can be done in Washington, Atlanta, or Tallahassee, for that matter.

"The American civic system at work," Holmes added.