STONEHAM - Town officials expanded their friendly competition with neighboring Wakefield by agreeing to a census challenge based upon each community's citizen participation rates in the federal population survey over the next few weeks.

During the Select Board's latest gathering, the town officials' second virtual meeting held via a video-conference call, Chair Shelly MacNeill explained Wakefield's leaders have agreed to don a new Town Council uniform of SHS' Spartan blues, should the community end April with a lower census participation rate than Stoneham.

Of course, if the local Select Board finds themselves on the losing end of the bet, MacNeill and her peers will have to sport some Wakefield Warrior athletic wear of their own.

"We have a little challenge going to see who can have the highest percentage of results. Hopefully, Stoneham can pull through for us," said the Select Board chair on Tuesday night. "We urge everyone to hurry and get their census forms in, because I really don't want to wear Wakefield Warrior attire to our meetings."

The Select Board is trying to spark a little more interest around the federal census as many are distracted by the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, which has impacted virtually every aspect of citizens' lives over the past month.

Prior to the public health crisis, Stoneham Planner and Economic Development Director Erin Wortman suggested that the community lost out on substantial federal grant and funding opportunities due to low participation rates in the population count a decade ago.

During a Select Board meeting in January, Wortman described Stoneham's participation rate in the 2010 census as abysmally low. Part of a census advisory board, the Planning Director estimated that as many as one in 10 households failed to submit their returned surveys, and in turn, Stoneham was listed as one of the only communities in the entire region with a declining population.

With key federal funding programs linked to the census, town officials say the result of the 2010 counts left Stoneham at a competitive disadvantage.

"Over the past 10 years, the Town of Stoneham has basically and to work uphill just to seek all types of funding, because we went down in population [based upon that 2010 data]," said Wortman. "It's also hard to justify why we need a new high school or to plan for our future, when our population went down and children under 5 were the most under-counted segment of the population."

Fulfilling the requirements of the U.S. Constitution, which links local and state population tallies to Congressional representation on Capitol Hill and eligibility for some $675 billion in federal funding initiatives, heads of households should have received an initial postcard about the 2020 Census between March 12 and March 20.

If residents ignore the first postcard, reminder notifications will be mailed on two other occasions, before a postcard and copy of the paper questionnaire is mailed directly to households between April 8 and April 16.

Those who haven't responded to those further inquiries should expect a federal census worker to show up at their front door beginning on April 20.

The Select Board has been competing with Wakefield's Town Council on the dodgeball court for four years now during the local Boys & Girls Clubs' annual 'Dodging for Dollars' event. The charity competition is one of the non-profit organization's biggest annual fundraisers, and last year, some $65,000 was raised.

Stoneham has thus far maintained the edge by winning most previous contests, but Wakefield has promised to upend that trend during this year's planned event — which is tentatively scheduled for May.

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