Data from the 2020 census showing a population drop means Rutland will have to redraw its legislative districts, local officials said Friday.
“It would be very unlikely the city would lose a representative, but where you vote could change depending on where the lines are drawn,” Board of Aldermen President Matt Whitcomb said.
Whitcomb said that while Wards 1 and 4 — the northeast and northwest, respectively — are still large enough to merit their own representatives, Wards 2 (southeast) and 3 (southwest) are not.
“All four of Rutland’s districts lost population,” said Rep. William Notte, who represents Ward 4. “The state allows for certain deviation ... but by state law, a district can only go 10% above or below its target population. Then we’re required by law to change it.”
Notte said he did not have immediate access to all the data when he was contacted Friday afternoon, but he was able to say off the top of his head that Ward 2 was at negative 17%. He referred additional questions on the numbers to the Vermont secretary of state’s office, which in turn referred them to the legislative counsel’s office which did not immediately respond to an inquiry Friday.
Notte said one way to resolve the issue would be to adjust the boundaries, moving population from the smaller wards to the bigger ones. Another approach could be to merge the districts, giving the city two districts with two representatives each rather than four with one each. Notte said local officials will get to weigh in on their preferences, but the decision will be made in Montpelier.
“At the end of the day, everything is just a recommendation to the Legislature,” Notte said. “Various groups need to be ready to bang the drum and make sure that message is heard in Montpelier.”
Mayor David Allaire said he will encourage the Board of Aldermen and other city officials to get together and take strong positions to influence the Legislature.
“We went through this 20 years ago and had quite a discussion about it,” he said. “My preference would be to keep four districts. Each resident knows who their representative is. That seems to work out the best.”
Notte said that however the lines are redrawn, he is sponsoring a bill that will require the state to send each affected voter a postcard explaining the change and where their new polling places will be. He also said the change points to a more long-term issue that requires the city’s attention.
“I definitely think we are in serious danger of losing a representative in 10 years if our population trends continue,” he said. “City Hall, city leadership, needs to look at how we can reverse our population decline.”
The U.S. Census website did not yet list 2020 data for Rutland as of Friday afternoon, but the July 2019 estimates put the city’s population at 15,074. That’s an 8.5% decrease from the 16,495 people counted living in Rutland in the 2010 census.
Meanwhile, the state as a whole saw its population go up 2.8% over the last decade, according to the 2020 census.
These trends are no revelation. Political and business leaders have been talking for years about the need for population growth in Rutland.
“It shows you there are real-world implications for it,” Allaire said. “It’s throughout southern Vermont, but we are a shining example of it and not in a good way.”
Lyle Jepson, executive director of Chamber and Economic Development of the Rutland Region (CEDRR), said reversing the population decline was the central goal of the regional marketing initiative.
“It is not something that happens quickly,” he said. “We need to maintain as many voices (in the Legislature) as possible because it comes down to votes sometimes and we need to protect Rutland County.”
Jepson said the campaign has a short-term goal of attracting 30 remote workers. He also said the city’s current predicament is why other measures had been proposed in the past, such as refugee resettlement.
“That would have increased the number of people coming into our area in a quick way,” he said.