WASHINGTON – The Census Bureau said Wednesday it will fingerprint and conduct background checks on more than a half- million temporary workers who will go door to door for the 2010 count, at a cost that could exceed $300 million.
Census Director Steven Murdock told a congressional committee the measures are necessary to ensure the federal government does not send criminals into the nation's homes.
He said it would be "absolutely devastating to the census" if temporary workers used their government jobs to commit crimes.
"We have a prime responsibility to ensure the safety of the American people," Murdock told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
The Census Bureau received a waiver for the 2000 census from the federal requirement to fingerprint government employees. Workers' names, however, were checked.
Murdock said four census workers were accused of crimes in 2000, though none was convicted. He said there were far more crimes committed against census workers.
Murdock said Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez, who oversees the Census Bureau, approved the massive fingerprinting operation. The FBI, which will do the background checks, also approved.
Census officials told congressional staffers the program would cost an additional $340 million, though Murdock said the bureau is working to reduce costs.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., a member of the committee, asked why such a big program was
being implemented less than two years from the constitutionally mandated count.
"Couldn't they have decided this in 2002, 2004 or 2006, instead of at the last minute?" she said. "This is a big decision, decided late, by the administration and not career professionals at Census."
The 2010 census is already over budget because of a botched technology contract, although the Congress got some good news Wednesday on the overall cost, which stands at more than $14 billion.
The Census Bureau announced in April that technology problems will prevent it from upgrading the 2010 census into the first truly high-tech count in the nation's history. Workers were to use handheld computers to count the millions of residents who do not return census forms mailed out by the government. Instead, census takers will return to using paper and pencil.
The handheld computers, which look like fancy cell phones, will still be used to verify every residential street address in the country.
Congressional investigators told the committee Wednesday that census officials were making progress in getting the 2010 count on track.
The contractor, Florida-based Harris Corp., initially told the Census Bureau that contract changes would add $1.3 billion to the cost, even though fewer computers would be needed. However, an independent consultant hired by the Census Bureau said the changes should increase the cost by far less — $717 million.
The Bush administration asked Congress this week for an additional $546 million to help pay for census preparations in the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1. The money would come from reductions in other programs, which has some lawmakers upset.
West Coast lawmakers are protesting the administration's proposal to take $70 million from the $170 million approved in the farm bill as disaster relief for the Pacific Coast salmon fishing industry.