Cover Story: 2010 Census - costs of counting

By Jeff Atkinson - bio l email

GASTONIA, NC (WBTV) - We're just days away from the operation the divvies up the country's power and money:  the U.S. Census.

This year, the budget for that process already coming under fire.  Critics say the Charlotte bureau spent more money on gas for trips than it should have.

At this time when money is tight our radar is up especially now when it comes to any kind of spending.. especially government spending.

The 2010 national head count will be the most expensive ever making it a particularly visible sign of rising government spending.

"We have donuts and knowledge."

Whatever it takes to get people out for the Census.

The Portrait of America Road Tour rolled into Gastonia Friday, set up in the parking lot of the Gaston County Library.

It's an effort to connect with the community through an interactive exhibit and serving up free trinkets of every kind.. clips, pens and water bottles that say "U.S. Census."  All designed to keep the once-a-decade head count at top of peoples' minds.

"If you don't give them something like a water bottle something they can use every day they'll forget," says Lisa Crawford, partnership specialist with the Census Bureau.  "This keeps remind them and for them to remind their friends and family about, 'Oh, yeah. The Census is coming. Don't forget.'"

But it's more than freebies and TV advertising taken out by the Census Bureau that some are calling into question.

A report from the U.S. Commerce Department Inspector General out this week found the Census Bureau has wasted millions and is at risk of exceeding its $15 billion price tag if costs aren't reigned in.

The Census Bureau the report says trained workers who later quit or were let go and overpaid employees who charged too much for mileage.  One of the Census regional offices that exceeded its mileage costs was here in Charlotte.

"Oversight on every federal program is an absolute necessity," says North Carolina's U.S. Senator Richard Burr.  "The Census is no different even though it only comes once a decade. It's absolutely crucial that we use the money as effectively as we can."

The audit examined the Census Bureau's address-canvassing operation last fall in which 140,000 temporary workers walked block by block to update the government's mailing lists and maps.

A spokesman for the Census Bureau in Washington says the agency has taken steps to "manage census-taker training and travel expenses."  And is confident it has "better estimates and cost controls in place."

Back at the road show taxpayers don't want to criticize the Census Bureau's public awareness campaigns but want to see spending kept in line too.

Says Evita Pierce of Gastonia, "With the Census and everything that's been leading up to it I think it's going to be a really a good thing to get people to understand why the Census is being taken and how people are counted and what will be the benefits from it."

As for the $3 million the Census Bureau spent on TV ads during the Super Bowl federal auditors say it's justified.

If one-percent of Super Bowl viewers, convinced by the TV ads, decide to mail-back their Census forms, it will save the Census Bureau $25-to-30 million in follow up costs.