WE WERE naive. We enviced a rather touching but foslish faith in te efficiency of one of ourt great bureaucracies. What happened was that we, the mayor and council of Hillsboro, Va. (pop. 98 or 100 or 104 or 109 or 135), believed that the Census Bureau could count.

The bureau went about its enormous task by first counting houses; then it counted the people in them. There is some logic in this: Houses stand still and people move about. It is obviously easier to count buildings than people -- or so one might think.

In 1970 the Census Bureau counted (correctly) 42 houses and 135 people in our little town. When the census enumerators counted for the first time in 1980 they counted only 34 houses. This was clearly an error, so we pointed out the Census Bureau that if nearly 20 per cent of our town had disappeared in the past decade, someone would have noticed. The only house no longer a dwelling was a shack south of Catoctin Creek that had tumbled down, but we still have 41 livable houses.

We asked the Census Bureau to count again and they did. This time the census people found 39 houses and said that they contained 98 people. Again we wrote, pointing out that we would have marked the disappearance of even three houses.

We suggested that the bureau try harder and count once more. This time a warm and friendly woman who was the bureau's supervisor for the area came to town. She was armed with lists of names and a map of the town. She and I together counted the houses: There were 41. She signed a document to this effect; I signed that as mayor I concurred.

The nice census supervisor was reassuring and comforting. "As long as you, representing the town, and I, representing the bureaua, agree, that is all that matters," she said. "Don't worry about the preliminary report. The correct number will be in the final count." But we did worry, for when the preliminary report was printed and distributed we noted that the bureau had completely new numbers: 37 houses and 100 people.

So we wrote to Daniel B. Levine, acting director of the Bureau of the Census. He was more than a little slow in replying, so we asked our United States senator, John Warner, if he could persuade Mr. Levine to reply. Eventully he did, reporting that the bureau had indeed found four more houses and 15 more people. Unlike the Census Bureau, Hillsboro does not have computers, but with pencil and paper we added four houses to the preliminary report's 37 houses and got 41 houses. The bureau, however, added four houses and came up with 38 houses. Furthermore, it added 15 people to the 100 people it had previously counted and concluded that our population was 104.

When, still again, we complained, a young man from the bureau's Count Complaint Section called to say that we really did not understand (I agreed) and that the nice woman supervisor who had counted the 41 houses with me was not a member of the permanent staff and was no longer with the bureau. (We were then unaware of the bureaucratic practice of hiring conslutants or temporary employes so that their words or deeds could be denied or disavowed when convenient.) The most significant statement made by the young man in the bureau's complaint department was that "the resources of the bureau have been exhausted." I pictured tens of thousands of supine census bureaucrats, exhausted by their efforts to count the 41 houses of Hillsboro.

Does it matter? Yes, it does. Aside from the fact that all good citizens ought to be concerned with the effeciency of our great bureaucracies, the miscount in Hillsboro, if allowed to stand, will seriously affect the town's budget. Hillsboro, like other Virtinia towns, relies heavily upon income from revenue sharing, a share of the state sales tax and a share of the state's monopoly on booze. The amounts from all of these sources are based upon the population figures published by the Bureau of the Census. Hillsboro could lose a substantial percentage of its income.

Even though the Census Bureau has "exhausted all its resources," we have (unreasonably, perhaps) asked these overworked people to try just one more time to get it right, to rouse themselves for a final, massive, allout effort to count those 41 houses.