Ocean City officials love to watch their town's popularity grow. They take pride in putting out glorious population estimates, telling how many people flocked to their summer playground during the past week or month.

They don't take it kindly if someone else comes up with a lower estimate.

Take the Fourth of July weekend this month. Optimistic estimates indicated that nearly 250,000 people came to play in the sand during those three days. Then the Greater Ocean City Health Services Corp. comes along and says that only 159,461 people came to town then.

The city calculates its figures by checking to see how much bus receipts and taxes on rooms have increased from the year before, then assuming that the population has increased by the same amount. The original population figure on which all this is based came "off the top of someone's head," one City Council member explained.

The corporation's figures are derived from a complex formula and based entirely on sewerage flows. Long ago, these estimates were called "demoflush figures," - a term concocted from the words demography and flush.

"Some people feel these (health services corporation) figures are . . . negative," explained City Council President Newt Cropper. "We like to think on the positive side, based on the increase of taxes and revenue."

"The darn figures they gave out never coincided with ours," he added. "A lot of times (their) figures would show less people in the city than ours . . . I don't think that's in the best interest of the town."

And it's not going to happen any more. This week, the corporation's board of directors told corporation director Leonard Kilbourne to keep the figures to himself.

Kilbourne isn't arguing. "Obviously these figures are creating dissension - or considerable confusion, at least," he said yesterday. "I am not at war with anyone . . . I'm just not going to give (the figures) out any more because these figures seem to create some problem."

Anyway, Kilbourne said, it wasn't his idea to give the demoflush figures out in the first place. "Every Monday or Tuesday the papers, the radio, and the news media would call me up and ask for the figures. I thought they were public, so I gave them out."

The population figures, he said, were originally compiled "as a planning tool . . ." so their own firm can adapt to future growth. "It's not my place to broadcast the population of this town," he added.

Newt Cropper agrees. "I personally don't think the demoflush figures are based on an accurate formulation," he said. But if the demoflush figures had shown a higher population estimate than the city's calculations, "I don't think there would have been a problem."

Cropper added that "to my knowledge" no one among the city's elected officials called the health services corporation and asked that they keep their figures to themselves. "But after they made the decision, we did concur."