Bloomberg’s Blind Spot

Photo: Patrick McMullan (Bloomberg); iStockphoto (Glasses)

Each of us has a blind spot, a hole in our vision where the light-gathering retina connects to the optic nerve. Politicians have other kinds of blind spots—pet projects, favored benefactors—and, in a bureaucracy as large as New York’s, they can breed trouble. Ed Koch started programs that were then used by Democratic Party bosses for patronage hires; 100,000 fraudulent welfare recipients took advantage of John Lindsay’s faith in the War on Poverty.

As a partyless billionaire who pays for his own campaigns, Mayor Bloomberg has no obligations to doctrine or donors, but he has a different kind of failing—a failing that’s just enabled one of the largest scandals of his administration, with four consultants arrested for allegedly misappropriating almost $80 million from the CityTime program to digitize the municipal payroll. And in a way, the project fits an established Bloombergian pattern: ambitious restructuring efforts whose technocratic idealism gives way to old-fashioned unsupervised governmental inefficiency.

To wit: In 2006, the Fire Department installed an automatic-vehicle-locator system, at a cost of $50 million. AVL has helped drop ambulance-response times but has been of limited use for the FDNY. “The thought was that the technology was improving so fast that we could find uses for it down the road, and we do use it as a management tool,” says FDNY deputy commissioner Frank Gribbon. Meanwhile, an emergency-response overhaul is years behind schedule, has cost almost billion dollars more than expected, and has left the fire-officers union with a stack of complaints about receiving delayed calls and being sent to the wrong address.

Then there’s the Department of Education, which has seen its budget rise from $12 billion to almost $22 billion since Bloomberg took over. Some of that money has been spent on testing regimes, six-figure salaries for consultants, a student-data system that was beset with glitches, and a $1.8 billion capital program for new technology; meanwhile, the department has instituted a hiring freeze and hasn’t met promises to reduce class size. While teachers pay out of their own pockets for basic classroom supplies, the DOE’s well-appointed Tweed Courthouse office produces scores of glossy, lavish, color-printed promotional materials touting its cutting-edge initiatives.

The general public trusts the mayor’s judgment on these kinds of projects because of his record of business innovation. “The mayor has a reputation as being a bad politician but a superior manager,” says Manhattan Institute senior fellow Fred Siegel. “But in department after department we’ve seen a huge increase in spending on executive salaries, consultants, and private contractors.” Bloomberg didn’t even appear to know who was in charge of CityTime, once claiming that former deputy mayor Ed Skyler had spent “an incalculable amount of time” trying to fix the program, which Skyler wasn’t actually involved with. When the fraud was exposed, Bloomberg said the $80 million lost “slipped through the cracks” (to which Comptroller John Liu responds, “I guess you could call the Grand Canyon just a crack in the ground, too”).

To his credit, the mayor acknowledges the program has been a “disaster.” What remains to be seen is whether it will prompt a closer look at other projects he believes are just too visionary to fail.

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Bloomberg’s Blind Spot