By Hope Yen
Washington — Were those pricey Super Bowl ads a waste? Maybe not, but paying $3 million to census employees who didn’t do any work surely was.
The Census Bureau, a month away from its 2010 population count, has wasted millions of dollars paying temporary employees who never did the work and others who overbilled for travel, according to excerpts of an audit obtained by The Associated Press.
On a positive note, federal investigators said it was appropriate for the Census Bureau to spend $133 million on its advertising campaign, including $2.5 million for Super Bowl spots that some Republicans derided as wasteful.
But the report by Commerce Department inspector general Todd Zinser makes clear the government is at risk of wasting millions of additional dollars without tighter spending controls by the Census Bureau on its 1 million temporary workers.
“The costs were substantial,” according to the report, which implored the agency to improve cost estimates so the national head count does not exceed its $15 billion price tag.
In response, Census Bureau spokesman Stephen Buckner attributed the excessive training costs to strong applicant interest in the temporary jobs. As a result, more recruits than expected showed up for the paid training sessions, and many subsequently were let go without performing work.
Since then, the agency has adjusted its job recruitment to account for the changes and imposed new controls to manage census-taker training and travel expenses, Buckner said.
The findings highlight the difficult balancing act for the Census Bureau as it sets out to manually count the nation’s 300 million residents amid a backdrop of record levels of government debt.
The federal hiring has been praised by the government for giving a lift to the nation’s sagging employment rate, but investigators found it also brought waste.
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.
The project finished ahead of schedule, but Census Bureau director Robert Groves acknowledged in October the costs had ballooned $88 million, or 25 percent, over the original estimate of $356 million. He promised to work to stop expenses from rising further.
Most people will receive census forms in mid-March, and the Census Bureau is asking residents to return them by April. For those who fail to respond, the government will send some 700,000 temporary workers to visit homes in May.