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Islanders don't count on census

Has Nantucket really grown?

Not if you believe the 1980 US census, which pegs the population at 5,072 - a drop from the 1975 state-sponsored tally of 5,559.

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The 1975 figure may have been inflated. But the selectmen here don't think so. In their eyes, the 1980 figure is ''invalid and meaningless.'' The real population, they asserted in a letter to the state's attorney general when the US census data was published, is more like 7,034.

How could the US government be that far wrong?

For starters, Census Bureau workers didn't pick up a lot of census forms - including those from three of the five selectmen.

And, like the salesmen in Meredith Willson's The Music Man, they didn't ''know the territory.'' Coming over from the mainland, working with old and inaccurate maps, they found a community of unnamed dirt roads and unnumbered houses.

To make matters worse, they did the initial count in late winter and early spring - when many of the island's permanent residents spend a month or two in Florida.

And by the time a local advertising campaign rounded up those who had been missed, the Census Bureau office in New Bedford had already been closed and the new people could not be added.

''How can a community which added 844 voters, 730 new telephone terminals, 558 new homes, 722 registered automobiles, and 609 new electrical customers between 1975 and 1980 have lost 487 inhabitants?'' the selectmen's letter asks.

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The selectmen's conclusion: ''Tourist-based rural communities are no less prone to census mismanagement and inadequacies than our more urban, city-centered counterparts.''

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