HARLINGEN — For a decade, Valley officials, economic development specialists and statistics gurus have all been singing from the same hymnal when it comes to population growth.
The Rio Grande Valley is one of the fastest-growing areas in Texas, and possibly the nation, they agreed.
But a dive into the actual numbers shows the glittering population gains among municipalities with at least 50,000 people depends on the city.
U.S. Census Bureau estimates of population centers as of July 1, 2018, indicate Edinburg, Pharr, Mission, McAllen and, to a somewhat lesser degree, Brownsville, all have posted significant gains since the last full count was made during Census 2010.
The population of Harlingen, the numbers say, has been flat at around 65,000 people, just 0.8 percent higher than the 2010 full Census count. It is a number which City of Harlingen officials are vigorously disputing.
Edinburg comes of age
Since 1980, the Valley’s population has more than doubled, from just under 600,000 people to nearly 1.4 million.
In the last nine years, no place has grown faster than the City of Edinburg, buoyed by the twin circumstances of fortune of being not just the Hidalgo County seat but home to the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s main campus.
Census estimates as of mid-2018 show the city has seen a growth spurt double that of most of the Valley’s biggest cities, adding 16,654 people since 2010, or an increase of 20.3 percent. This influx of people to the city now means it has an estimated population of 98,665.
“We will be the third city in the Rio Grande Valley to have over 100,000 residents,” said City Manager Juan G. Guerra.
“In our eyes, it’s extremely important, mainly because the more population you have, the bigger voice you have when it comes to Austin and Washington, D.C.,” Guerra added. “There are two cities in the region that are over 100,000 (Brownsville and McAllen) and there’s just something psychological that happens when you get past that 100,000 population threshold.”
When it comes to population increases in cities over the 50,000-population threshold since 2010, Edinburg ranks No. 42 in the nation, Census figures show.
Edinburg, Pharr (up 13.1 percent), Mission (up 9.2 percent), McAllen (up 9.0 percent) and Brownsville (up 4.9 percent), have all posted population gains since 2010, according to the Census estimates from 2018.
Yet it is the City of Harlingen which is the outlier in these population numbers, showing a gain of just 524 people since 2010 to put its Census estimate eight years later at 65,436 residents. A revised state estimate puts it at 68,328.
“We think that our population is more like 96,000 people because of the multipliers that we used on the households,” said Gabe Gonzalez, Harlingen’s assistant city manager who also heads the Harlingen Complete Count Committee for Census 2020. “We know its not 68,000, which is what the Census says, we know that’s not accurate.”
If the city’s own estimates are more accurate, an increase of 30,000 people over the past eight years, or 46.5 percent, would rank the city No. 4 nationally in percentage growth behind Frisco, Texas, (60.6 percent), South Jordan, Utah, (46.9 percent) and New Braunfels, Texas, (46.7 percent).
Harlingen officials presented a detailed and comprehensive defense of their population position to Texas State Demographer Lloyd B. Potter.
State demographers are responsible for the interim population estimates the Census Bureau puts forth each year between the 10-year Census cycles. The Census 2020 numbers will supersede these estimated population totals once the new census is completed, setting a new baseline.
Harlingen’s report to the state involved detailed statistics involving an increase in housing units, births and deaths and a mathematical ratio of people-to-households based on AEP Texas’s residential service.
The latter uses a 2.95-percent multiplier which estimates that for every residential household with AEP Texas service. Population can be estimated by multiplying the number of residential service contracts by 2.95. City officials say this is a recognized, valid measure of population and is even on the conservative side.
“If we use those AEP meters connected to households, and we use the 2.95 multiplier, that puts us at 96,000 people,” Gonzalez said. “If you go to a grocery store, you go to Wal-Mart and you look at the traffic, that’s a more realistic number.
“Because there’s lots of congestion,” he added. “You go to the grocery store and you don’t just walk into your line and get out. You’ve got to wait for at least 15-20 minutes for everybody trying to get out. See, that’s representative of a population that is 96,000 not 68,000, which they have us at.”
For Edinburg, the rapid population growth the city is experiencing is a net positive, even a validation of the city’s direction, City Manager Guerra says.
“A population boom doesn’t just happen, right? The population boom takes place if there’s infrastructure available, if there are subdivisions available, if the city is a good place to be when it comes to public safety, quality of life,” Guerra said, crediting the mayor and city council for creating a strong foundation for the city’s growth.
The addition of nearly 17,000 residents has increased the city’s tax base, and has super-charged its retail sector (sales tax reimbursements are up 13.73 percent for the year), but Guerra concedes such a rapid expansion can stress a city’s infrastructure.
“The tax base is broadened, which means you get more taxes,” he said. “But keep in mind, with more people you get more needs.”
Edinburg has hired 11 more firefighters through a grant, but once that runs its course, it will be another $1 million in annual expense for the city. This year the city added about 40 municipal employees, and replaced 47 police patrol units at a cost of about $2 million. As for crime, he says it has dropped 19.5 percent since the first of the year.
In addition to the mayor and council members, Guerra said Edinburg residents, too, are on board with providing city officials with the tools to manage the city’s growth spurt.
Last year, Edinburg voters passed a $30 million bond issue which will be used to improve roads and drainage.
But voters’ largesse when it comes to infrastructure has its limits. In May, they soundly rejected a massive $220 million school bond issue for Edinburg CISD with 72 percent of voters casting a ballot against it.
“Right now, we’re in the beginning stages of a comprehensive master plan which is a 10-year update,” Guerra said. “We just finished our parks master plan, which is another 20-year update. This past week we just approved the airport master plan which is a 20-year plan and all of this is to try and get us to see the vision for the long-term today.”
The right count
The Texas State Demographer’s Office, following the presentation by City of Harlingen officials disputing the population estimate for the city, has revised the number upward.
The office, in a new population estimate released in January, now puts Harlingen’s population at 68,328, which is a 5.2 percent increase over its 2010 numbers. Other Valley cities also saw their population totals increase with this latest state revision, the last one before Census 2020.
But Gonzalez, the Harlingen assistant city manager, is well aware the city’s population estimate will mean nothing if it is not confirmed by Census 2020.
Since federal and state funding is tied directly to these population numbers, the ability to confirm the estimates with real numbers is critical to Valley municipalities.
It is estimated that each individual resident who goes uncounted in a census year is a loss of $1,500 in funding annually. Multiplied by 10 for each of the years in the next decade in which these numbers will be used for funding allocations, and the potential losses for cities whose residents are undercounted by tens of thousands of people are staggering.
“And that’s in federal and state funding,” Gonzalez said. “If you look at your hospitals, we have two. They rely on grants for some of their operations. The VA relies on funding. The University of Texas needs money from the state to keep on operating. It’s not just the city that’s going to benefit from everyone submitting their Census forms, but all these other agencies that provide for a community as well. That’s why it’s so important.”
Who is out there?
Without an accurate count of its new residents, along with its old citizens for that matter, Edinburg could be left with the expense of adding infrastructure without the federal and state funding to help pay for it.
“At the end of the day, if the city is providing support for the community, then you want to identify the number of residents we’re actually helping out,” Guerra said. “It matters if we help out one resident versus we help out 100 residents. We want to make sure we understand who we’re helping out so you have to count everybody.
“I need to know who we’re working for, how many people we’re working for, so we can allocate the resources accordingly and we can know more or less where they’re living,” he added. “So we need to know pretty much where everybody is at.”
As Guerra speaks of his city’s future, and his concerns about ensuring an accurate Census 2020 count, over his shoulder through his second-floor city office window loom two giant cranes helping to construct the $150 million Hidalgo County Courthouse.
“It isn’t too often in this region you get two cranes operating at the same time,” he mused as he looked up at the twin towers dominating the skyline. “That is progress.”
Top Valley cities
Nat’l rank City Pop. Increase Percent increase
42 Edinburg 16,645 20.3
140 Pharr 9,240 13.1
255 Mission 7,137 9.2
262 McAllen 11,874 9.0
407 Brownsville 8,644 4.9
573 Harlingen 524 0.8
Top Texas cities
1 Frisco 71,000 60.6
3 New Braunfels 26,935 46.7
5 McKinney 60,485 46.1
6 Cedar Park 21,882 39.7
8 Conroe 22,395 34.3
12 Pearland 29,021 31.2
15 Round Rock 28,729 28.7
16 Midland 31,154 28.0
19 League City 22,681 27.1
21 Mansfield 14,566 25.8
Source: U.S. Census Bureau
Note: Cities over 50,000 population based on change from 2010 Census to 2018 estimates
Valley cities by population
Source: U.S. Census Bureau estimate of cities with 50,000-plus populations as of 2018