The automated payroll system CityTime came under its heaviest criticism to date at a City Council hearing on May 8, as elected officials, labor leaders and municipal workers grilled Office of Payroll Administration officials about the program’s cost, duration and efficacy.

The decade-old program, which OPA says will save the city $60 million a year by digitizing the payroll system and reducing forgery of time sheets through the use of biometric “hand geometry” scanners for employees, will post a cumulative price tag of approximately half a billion dollars by the end of 2009—under a contract that could run through 2021.

The CityTime contract has been amended eight times since 1998 to include more municipal agencies and keep pace with technological advances, and the program has changed contractors several times. Originally awarded to a firm named Systemhouse, in 2001 the CityTime contract shifted to the San Diego-based Science Applications International Corporation, a major defense contractor whose track record includes cost overruns and allegations of substandard work on high-profile projects, including the FBI’s botched $535 million “Trilogy” information management system.

A decade of wrangling over CityTime’s cost, quality and impact on privacy has some legislators wondering if the city ought to back away from the effort. “Are we at a point where we’re throwing good money at a bad program?” asked Councilman Joseph Addabbo, chairman of Council’s Civil Service and Labor Committee, who pointed to the city’s looming budget deficit of $4 billion. In light of CityTime’s undetermined duration and inflated cost, the Queens Democrat is calling for at least a halt on payments and work under the contract. “There’s enough evidence or inefficacy or questionable facts to justify further investigation,” said Addabbo. “While we’re investigating, let’s have the moratorium.”

Brooklyn Councilwoman Letitia James took issue with the lack of outside oversight on CityTime, and recommended that the comptroller’s office conduct an independent audit. A 2002 audit by the Gartner Group consulting firm produced the estimate of $60 million in annual savings, but that was commissioned by OPA. “I don’t understand why any of the amendments [to the CityTime deal] didn’t trigger a rebid of the contract,” said James, who chairs the Council’s Contracts Committee and co-chaired the hearing with Addabbo. James also questioned whether the CityTime contract was awarded competitively; OPA insists it was.

Besides the cost and oversight concerns, privacy issues have dogged the roll out of CityTime. (See City Limits Weekly #629, March 3, 2008, Show of Hands: City Workers Resist Tracking.) The biometric system “has been a case study in how to increase distrust between labor and management,” said Stacey Moriates, a Department of Environmental Protection employee for more than 25 years. Citing complaints about inflexible CityTime-imposed schedules and time lost to schedule-related busywork for supervisors, Parks Department employee Ricardo Hinckle characterized palm scanners as “very demoralizing” to workers, particularly the “creeping coercive aspect” of biometric identification and perceived distrust. Hinckle also claimed the machines create a “caste system” in the workplace: Employees earning over $68,000 are not required to use palm scanners.

OPA says that hand geometry scanners are not an intrusive technology, and insist that CityTime was not devised with the intent of tracking workers. “There is no potential of the violation of our employees’ privacy,” said OPA Executive Director Joel Bondy. Bondy also testified that concerns about SAIC’s track record were “determined to be unfounded.”

Union opponents of the program are moving to curtail CityTime’s use, whether or not the city slows the flow of money.

Local 375 of the Technical Worker’s Guild, which represents engineers, architects, medical professionals, and other technical workers, unveiled draft legislation that would prohibit public and private employers in New York City from requiring the use of biometric or location-awareness technology as a prerequisite for employment. Though New York state has no laws that restrict the use of such technologies, legal precedents exist in other states. The state of Washington prohibits the use of RFID chips to gather personal data and a Texas statute establishes detailed guidelines for the use and storage of biometric information, with strict penalties for violations.

“I think we’re at a crossroads and we need to draw a line in terms of what is and isn’t acceptable in terms of surveillance technology,” said Jon Forster, first vice president of Local 375. Addabbo said he might support the Local 375 bill “if it passes legal muster.”

– Ali Winston