Tired of indignities, town makes itself heard
ERVING — The rugged town of Erving, population 1,467, clings fast to the Franklin County hills that rise from the dancing currents of the Millers River. It’s a quiet, unpretentious place, usually just a scenic curiosity for passing motorists on the Mohawk Trail.
But Erving has a distinction no other community in Massachusetts can claim. Its residents recorded a 100 percent response to the 2010 US Census.
Town officials attributed the feat to small town pride, belief that an accurate count really matters, and a chance to send a “we’ll-show-’em’’ message to Washington.
For decades, Erving tolerated ZIP code confusion, mislabeled mail, and Washington’s bureaucratic inattention to the problem, town officials said. In their eyes, the perfect score is driven by a fed-up determination to make sure everyone knows who lives in the town.
“People realized that we don’t want to go through this again,’’ said assistant assessor Jacquelyn Boyden.
And, she notes, “I think the reason everyone returned it is we understand the importance of getting our fair share.’’
The confusion was spawned by the existence of two ZIP codes in Erving, one of which the town shared with neighboring Montague until the late 1990s. That ZIP code encompassed Millers Falls, a village of tidy homes and small shops that straddles the river.
Although the falls form a dramatic boundary between the towns, the ZIP code usually said “Montague’’ to undiscriminating government computers. As a result, motor vehicle excise bills for Montague would be mailed mistakenly to Erving residents, census forms would occasionally follow suit, and the census data used to determine state and federal aid would be skewed, town officials said.
Not only town pride was at stake. Money was, too.
“It became a real, big pain in the derriere,’’ said Boyden, who added that the mess probably has cost the town an undetermined amount of government dollars for the schools and the general fund. No one knows how much has been lost, Boyden said, because no one knows exactly who wasn’t counted before.
Erving officials thought the problem had vanished when the town started using a single ZIP code more than a decade ago. But this year, just in case, Erving officials prepared for the census by beating the drum incessantly about the importance of returning the forms.
Notices were placed on the town website, a lengthy reminder was published in the community newsletter, and the local media recalled the mistakes of the past.
But when this year’s census forms arrived, assistant town clerk Betsy Sicard became inundated with complaints.
The geographic glitch had struck again, caused partly by what census officials said are complications in the sorting process for bulk mail. Some Erving forms were addressed to Millers Falls, and others said Turners Falls, which is yet another part of Montague.
“People were saying, ‘Listen, I want to be counted, but they don’t even have my right address!’ ’’ Sicard recalled.
After conferring twice with the Census Bureau, town officials advised residents to cross out the bar codes on their forms, write in the correct town, and mail the information back to the federal government. A second mailing followed — this time all to “Erving’’ — and the response, once again, was perfect.
Town administrator Tom Sharp, who isn’t shy about praising Erving’s civic virtues, seemed startled by this degree of responsibility.
“I’ve never heard of anything being 100 percent,’’ he said. “But if you take the trouble to call Town Hall, you’ll take the trouble to do it.’’
The Census Bureau believes it isn’t a mirage. “We were like, ‘Is this a glitch?’ ’’ said Tia Costello, who works for the bureau to increase participation in Massachusetts. “But in looking at all the data, it does appear that they delivered 100 percent.’’
About 300 forms for Erving were returned as undeliverable, Costello said. So census workers will return to check for residents at those addresses. But as of now, every form delivered in Erving has yielded a reply.
And that, Costello agreed, is a rare, eye-opening bit of citizenship.
To Vicki Fellows, 53, who owns the Pocket Saver Market on Route 2, the town’s response is surprising but not shocking.
“I filled it out, and I filled it out for my mother, too,’’ Fellows said as she stood behind the cash register. “If you want to be counted, you’ve got to stand up for your town. We want to make sure our town gets everything that’s coming to it.’’
To Sharp, his face brightened by an impish smile, the town just might be a 21st century pioneer.
“Maybe,’’ Sharp said, “we’ve found a new model of success for the national government.’’