GA Town Challenged for Census Payment Scheme

July 7, 2008 - 7:02 PM

( - A public interest law firm is challenging a plan from the city of Valdosta, Georgia, to pay residents for completing their census form.

The Valdosta City Council voted last Thursday to pay residents there $5 in cash for turning in their census forms at City Hall, which is a registered Census help center.

A report in the Valdosta Daily Times quotes Mayor James Rainwater touting the economic benefits of Census data collection, rather than the constitutionally mandated purpose of the Census, which is to apportion Congressional members among the states.

"I think it's a good investment when you look at the millions we could lose compared to $5," Rainwater said. "It's a show of good faith and of the city's seriousness about this. We're going to have 16,000 fliers explaining it printed tonight and mailed to all of the city's water and sewer customers."

But Atlanta-based Southeastern Legal Foundation President Matthew Glavin takes a different view of Valdosta's plans to pay individuals for returning their Census forms - which they are required to do by federal law.

Glavin fired off a letter Monday to James questioning whether the city's plan violates a state prohibition against "gratuities."

Glavin, who won a landmark Supreme Court case against the U.S. Census Bureau last year, expressed his concern that Valdosta's plans violate earlier state court decisions that concluded the Georgia Constitution "does not permit direct grants to private persons solely to induce economic activity for the general welfare."

"Further, since the citizens of Valdosta already have a legal obligation to respond to the census, payment by the City Council to perform this duty may violate its fiduciary duty to use public funds only to make a bona fide purchase that is 'worth the money expended,'" Glavin wrote.

Glavin also contends that such a plan may also induce an inaccurate count by encouraging multiple responses by individual households.

"The City should consider whether it can insure that residents who have already mailed in their forms are not filling out additional 'Be Counted' forms, available at public libraries and post offices, to earn the payment promised by the city," Glavin added.