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 already 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 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," he wrote, imploring the agency to improve cost estimates so the national headcount does not exceed its $15 billion price tag.
The findings highlight the difficult balancing act for the Census Bureau as it takes on the Herculean task of manually counting the nation's 300 million residents amid a backdrop of record levels of government debt.
Because the population count, done every 10 years, is used to distribute U.S. House seats and billions in federal aid, many states are pushing for all-out government efforts in outreach since there is little margin for error, particularly for minorities and the poor, who tend to be undercounted. At the same time, the national headcount will be the most expensive ever, making it a particularly visible sign of rising government spending.
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, scheduled to be released next week, 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 and said he would reevaluate budget estimates for the entire census operation.
Groves has said he hopes to return tens of millions of dollars to government coffers by motivating more U.S. residents to mail in their form, which avoids costly follow-up visits by census takers. The bureau has said that if 1 percent of Super Bowl viewers change their minds and mail in their form, it will save taxpayers $25 million to $30 million in follow-up costs.
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 dispatch some 700,000 temporary workers to visit homes in May.
Among the audit findings:
_More than 10,000 census employees were paid more than $300 apiece to attend training for the massive address-canvassing effort, but they quit or were let go before they could perform any work. Cost: $3 million.
_Another 5,000 employees collected $300 for the same training but worked a single day or less. Cost $1.5 million.
_Twenty-three temporary census employees were paid for car mileage at 55 cents a mile, even though the number of miles they reported driving per hour exceeded the number of hours they actually worked.
_Another 581 employees who spent the majority of their time driving instead of conducting field work also received full mileage reimbursements, which investigators called questionable.
Census regional offices that had mileage costs exceeding their planned budgets included Atlanta, Charlotte, N.C., Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Kansas City and Seattle.
The Super Bowl advertising — which included a 30-second spot in the third quarter, two 30-second pregame spots and on-air mentions — was panned by media critics as weak and ineffective, and it was criticized as wasteful by Republicans including Sen. John McCain of Arizona. But the inspector general's report said the advertising was consistent with government goals of boosting participation in the count.