Mayor Michael Bloomberg landed his hard-fought third term in part by selling himself to voters as a savvy businessman and no-nonsense manager who could secure the city's finances in tough economic times.

But with yet another city contractor accused of profiting off a payroll technology kickbacks scheme on the mayor's watch, and still more arrests in the pipeline, the steady drip, drip, drip of bad news on the scandal is chipping away at his public image, some analysts say.

The project to computerize the timekeeping system for city employees started in 1998 and carried an estimated price tag of $63 million.

But in the years since Bloomberg took office in 2002, the time frame has more than doubled and the cost has ballooned to more than $700 million -- a total that prosecutors now say includes at least $85 million in kickbacks and falsified billing.

Analysts say the case presents a political stumbling block for the billionaire mayor, who is already facing a drop in approval from voters.

The scandal "attacks at the core of the administration's claim that it delivers good, effective, efficient, businesslike government under a businessman for mayor," said Gerald Benjamin, a political science professor at the State University of New York at New Paltz.

Bloomberg, who has long touted his business savvy and commitment to technological innovation, argues that his staff has done "a pretty good job" on the mammoth technology project, known as CityTime. While calling the alleged fraud "despicable," he has said that it represented an aberration.

Four contractors were charged in December, accused with others of laundering the money through layers of shell corporations meant to disguise a fraud that prosecutors said dated to 2005. Investigators say they expect more arrests in the still-expanding case.

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