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Feds will keep definition of metro at 50,000-person minimum

ORLANDO, Fla. – Facing criticism from small cities that feared losing status and funding, the federal government said Tuesday that it won’t raise the population threshold for what qualifies as a metro area.

The Office of Budget and Management said it will keep the minimum population needed in a community’s core city at 50,000 residents in order to be designated a “metropolitan statistical area,” also known as an MSA.

The federal government had been considering doubling that threshold to 100,000 people. Under that earlier proposal, 144 cities with core populations of 50,000 to 99,000 were at risk of becoming “micropolitan statistical areas” instead. The proposal would have changed the designation of more than a third of the current 392 MSAs.

Leaders of metro areas like Bismarck, North Dakota; Cheyenne, Wyoming; and Auburn, Alabama, had worried the change would cause real harm, preventing urban areas from getting designated federal funding and making them less attractive for economic development.

“That is great news!” said Alex McElroy, executive director of the Southeast Metropolitan Planning Organization in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, when told of Tuesday’s decision. “Overall, it’s a great designation to have because you get a lot more attention from the federal government with that designation.”

Sens. John Thune, a Republican from South Dakota, and Mark Kelly, a Democrat from Arizona, introduced legislation in June that would have stopped the Office of Budget and Management, also known as the OMB, from making the change.

“The fact that the OMB will not be pursuing the change at this time will ensure that essential community services, funded by various federal agencies which consider population size and MSA status, will continue into the foreseeable future,” said Bismarck Mayor Steve Bakken. “We are very grateful the current threshold will remain in place at 50,000 people.”

Federal statisticians who originally had recommended the change said it was long overdue, given that the U.S. population has more than doubled since the 50,000-person threshold was introduced in 1950. Back then, about half of U.S. residents lived in metros; now, 86% do.

The committee of federal statisticians that made the recommendation said Tuesday that it would now support putting it on hold pending additional research and outreach to municipalities and others.

Updates to these standards are considered every decade. Even though the proposal was made during the Trump administration, and put on hold in the Biden administration, statisticians say any changes to the standards aren’t based on politics.

Of the 734 public comments the Office of Budget and Management received about the proposed change, 97% opposed it, the agency said Tuesday in a notice of its decision.

“Of the commenters who did cite a rationale for their opposition, almost all cited a non-statistical rationale, such as concerns about loss of federal or other funding; concerns about other programmatic consequences; and concerns about economic development for individual areas that would be reclassified from metropolitan to micropolitan,” the notice said.

Officials in places like Corvallis, Oregon, need more resources, not fewer, as residents look to them to solve everyday problems, said Patrick Rollens, a spokesperson for the city that is home to Oregon State University.

“I think this is an acknowledgement that cities, particularly small to medium-sized metros, are punching above their weight in terms of the issues they tackle and the expectations of the communities they serve,” he said.

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