City population on the decline
Lack of affordable housing. A declining economy and gaming industry. A series of intense winter seasons. These are possible explanations some South Lake Tahoe officials are giving for the latest state census, which shows a 2.8 percent decline in the city’s population from January 1996 to January of this year.
But others are questioning the validity of the numbers released Monday by the State Department of Finance, and worry that the statistics could decrease revenue coming to the city.
“Whatever revenue sources are proportionally based on population will be reduced by 2.8 percent,” said Kerry Miller, city manager. “That’s just one more fiscal hit to a city that can’t afford to lose one dollar.”
He went so far as to say the city might consider appealing the figures, based on the fact that the government could lose money as a result.
Mayor Tom Davis was one who did not question the numbers, saying he can easily see why population would decline in South Lake Tahoe.
“I’m not surprised at all,” he said. “I’m surprised it didn’t start going that way a long time ago. We do everything we can to keep people from coming here.”
The city had been showing steady growth since the 1990 federal census up to this past year, said Linda Gage, chief of the demographic research unit at the California Department of Finance.
The department conducts population estimates annually for counties and cities, based on data such as driver’s licenses, births and deaths, school enrollment, tax returns, vacancy rates, building demolitions and annexations, she said.
Gage said the drop is likely a mirror of the 1.6-percent decline in El Dorado County – the largest of any county in the state.
“The primary thing in South Lake Tahoe is very minor housing growth. They seem to have lost some share of the county population to (the city of) Placerville,” she said. “There is still a net out – migration in that county – more people are moving out than moving in.”
However, she said she does not expect the declining trend to continue.
“There is a major turn-around going on in the state, it’s just happening slower in the rural areas,” Gage said.
But Davis said the city cannot hope to regain its momentum until it provides landowners with more incentives for improving the housing stock that already exists, which he said the City Council is in the process of doing.
“Between the city and the (Tahoe Regional Planning Agency), we have so many darn rules and regulations that there is no incentive for the owner,” he said. “Instead of dealing with all the barriers and increased costs, they’d rather just let their property deteriorate. That’s just not good government.”
Another major factor that could have produced a population drop is the decline in the area’s tourism market over the past 12 months, Davis said.
City Councilman Kevin Cole agreed with that theory, adding that a succession of rough winters in Tahoe could also cause people to leave the city.
“A number of people were moving to the area in the drought years, thinking the winters were not so bad,” Cole said. “But after a few real winters in a row, they may say ‘I’m not so sure I like it.'”
However, Cole conceded that there is a chance the estimate could be wrong, because vacancy rates differ widely by the seasons and other outside factors.
Miller said he tends to question any population estimates coming from the state or the federal governments as it relates to South Lake Tahoe.
“In our community, population figures are really so difficult to get a handle on,” he said. “We all generally believe our population … is actually significantly understated. I think we are dealing with a much larger permanent population base than the statistics would indicate.”
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