Civic Center — A dozen years after New York City undertook an ambitious $68 million project to overhaul its timekeeping system for city employees, the CityTime initiative has run up a price tag of $722 million. Administered by the Office of Payroll Administration, the program has been marked by cost overruns, blown deadlines, concerns about employee privacy and undisclosed ties between a contractor and city officials.

CityTime, a computerized system that clocks workers in by registering the unique characteristics of an individual's hand – a contemporary version of "punching in" at a timeclock – is currently being used by 46,000 city employees at 56 agencies.

This month, the CityTime saga took a twist – Comptroller John Liu rejected an $8.1 million, 2-year contract package for Spherion Atlantic Enterprises, a quality assurance subcontractor, to work on CityTime. In a letter dated Feb. 9, Director John Goddard of the Comptroller's Office of Contract Administration said OPA “failed to include a Responsibility Determination” on Spherion, which has monitored the work of main contractor Science Applications International Corporation since 2001. The Comptroller's letter also criticized CityTime's “long history of extraordinary cost increases.”

Two years ago, City Limits reported on OPA Director Joel Bondy's employment as a Spherion subcontractor for two years prior to joining the city workforce in 2004, which he acknowledged during an arbitration hearing with the city's worker's union. Although Bondy is responsible for overseeing and re-awarding Spherion's contract, and did not disclose his prior employment in his official biography, the city's Conflict of Interest Board found no wrongdoing.

Bondy and Spherion came under fire from Brooklyn City Councilwoman Letitia James at a hearing in December. In response to questions from James, an outspoken critic of CityTime, Bondy disclosed that Spherion employees received an hourly rate of $236.25. As of late December, Spherion had received $51 million from the city.

A number of former city employees have become Spherion and SAIC contractors. At the hearing, Bondy identified a number of them as former colleagues from the city or the private sector, though he denied playing any role in their hiring.

“The contract could conceivably go to $1 billion," said James. “There's no oversight whatsoever.” Other points of concern included the multiple layers of subcontractors involved in CityTime, and the questionable manner in which both SAIC and its subcontractors have received CityTime work. James characterized the contracts as “no-bid” agreements, which she considers a hallmark of Mayor Bloomberg's tenure.

“This administration is basically married to no-bid contracts and privatizing public works,” said James, characterizing such arrangements as “backdoor” privatization and a serious threat to city workers and New York's middle class.

Municpal workers' union DC 37, which has strongly opposed CityTime, is pleased that the new comptroller is casting a skeptical eye on the work of private contractors. Executive Director Lillian Roberts said, “We are happy the New York City Comptroller is looking at these contracts. For quite some time District Council 37 has raised the issue of the colossal waste and cost overruns involved in contracting out public services to the private sector.”

Local 375 of DC37, the Civil Service Technical Guild, also has raised privacy concerns in recent years, citing the invasive "Big Brother" aspect of submitting to biometric technology several times every workday. But the dollars involved have proven a more effective attention-getter: Now, says Local 375 First Vice President Jon Forster, "People are aware of the colossal waste of money."

There are also public allegations about lax billing practices at Spherion. This month, the Daily News printed claims of three former employees who say they were encouraged to overbill the city. The same workers claim complaints they filed with the Department of Investigation were not investigated.

Despite the project's rocky road overall, the Bloomberg administration continues to stand by CityTime. “Yes, we're continuing with the project” said spokesman Mark Lavorgna, deferring to OPA for further comment.

OPA plans to resubmit the contract package to the Comptroller's Office, according to General Counsel Valerie Himelewski. Although Himelewski would not comment on specifics, she stated that allegations of flawed oversight are “completely false.” SAIC and Spherion did not respond to requests for comment.