By Jackie Stone
Killeen Daily Herald
Bell County has climbed to No. 16 of the state's 254 counties in terms of population size, according to numbers released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau.
When the once-a-decade report was conducted in April 2010, Bell County had 310,235 people living in it. That's 30.4 percent more than it had in 2009 - when 237,974 ranked the county No. 19.
Within Bell County, Killeen's population was counted at 127,921 people. Temple was counted at 66,102.
"Bell County has, over the past several decades, experienced impressive growth, but this is even more than anyone predicted," County Judge Jon Burrows said.
The Census Bureau began this month to release population counts to the states, with more states released each day. The counts released Thursday will be used in redistricting while also giving a glimpse of the makeup of Texas and its largest-growing counties.
Bell County's rate of growth outstripped the state's growth of 20.6 percent. The state grew from 20.8 million people in 2000 to 25.1 million in April 2010.
Williamson County, however, was the fastest growing of the most populous 20 counties in the state, growing 69.1 percent to a population of 422,679 people from 249,967 in the 2000 Census.
On a national level, the high growth in both Bell and Williamson counties could mean a shift in their representation during the redistricting process.
Redistricting is conducted once every 10 years when the Census population counts are released to make sure the makeup of legislators' districts are roughly equal.
Both Bell and Williamson counties are included in Congressman John Carter's district in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Burrows said the new population totals for just those two counties could make it difficult for the two to stay together in their entirety.
"Congressman Carter's district is Bell and five or six other counties. Willamson and Bell together is 732,000, so I think the plan was Williamson and Bell, Carter would just have those two counties," Burrows said. "That will probably happen, but now some portion of the two counties may end up in other districts."
Carter was unavailable for comment Thursday.
At the state level, Burrows and state legislators are optimistic that after the redistricting process is done, Bell County's lawmakers will continue to represent the county.
State Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, said having a high population - as he and state Rep. Ralph Sheffield, R-Temple, do - can be beneficial going into redistricting. Aycock said conversations have already begun about how the apportionment can be accomplished, and he believes that Bell County stands to gain politically if additional representatives end up with a bite of the county.
"We're pleased with the growth and vibrance of our area, and politically, by this growth, we'll be in a better place to have a stronger voice in the legislature," he said.
State Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, said his much larger state Senate district - which currently covers 21 Texas counties - has remained a good size. While the edges may change, "there's a 100 percent chance that Bell County will continue to be my core county for my district."
However, looking across the state, western counties that lost population may make some gains on the edge of Fraser's district, and he may inch into territory on the east, he said. Fraser also said he believes there's a chance his district will gain back Coryell County, which was moved into another district during the last redistricting process.
Officials said the strong growth of the state and the community is positive news overall but comes with a few dark clouds.
"Obviously, it's good news in that we're the fastest-growing state. The bad news is, we've had so much growth it's put a strain on our budget," Fraser said. "When you've got an increase in population, you've gotta take care of them. In the long term, it will be extremely good news. But short term, we've got a little bit of a challenge budget-wise."
Burrows echoed those feelings at the county level. At a time when state funding for programs is going down and the need for those programs is increasing with the population, more will fall on local governments, he said.
"Funding certainly is tied to populations, so that will help us somewhat, but with the state decreasing funding, it will certainly increase pressure for counties that are growing," he said.
Contact Jackie Stone at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7548. Follow her on Twitter at KDHcityeditor.