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Bloomberg's Third-Term Funk

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Is New York's big 2011 problem going to be Michael Bloomberg?

The omens aren't looking good. There was the snowstorm cleanup, which Bloomberg insisted was great. "The city is going fine. Broadway shows were full last night. There are lots of tourists here enjoying themselves," he declared. Then, of course, his cheery reports were drowned out by the howls from unplowed Brooklyn and Queens, and the rancor of the city papers.

(You do not want to mess with the local media after a snow storm. The reporters are cranky because they are either spending their days outside in the cold, or inside trying to think of synonyms for "snow." Sooner or later, they will succumb in desperation to "white stuff." But they won't feel good about themselves.)

In retrospect, it seems as if the city's big error may have been its slowness in declaring the storm to be an emergency. You can understand their thinking - it was Christmas weekend, traffic was light and calling in plow crews to work extra shifts on a holiday would have required paying some kind of super-quadruple overtime.

But the worrisome thing was how long it took Bloomberg to see that his administration had committed a serious screw-up.

Ditto with the ongoing, possibly never-ending scandal over CityTime, the computerized payroll system that was supposed to cost $63 million and is now budgeted to come in at around $722 million. Four consultants on the project have been arrested for fraud and the Bloomberg official in charge of the project resigned recently under a cloud of epic proportions.

Bloomberg, in his public statements, has provided the equivalent of a vocal shrug.

CityTime, he said, was an excellent example of "how things fall through the cracks." Nothing that big happens without problems. The city is "relatively corruption- and crime-free."

We are going to have this guy running the city for another three years. Can you see the problem?

New Yorkers didn't elect Bloomberg mayor because they liked his style. If a mayor is going to screw up, you want him to be a colorful rogue, so the city can at least enjoy the theater.

But it was almost painful to watch Mayor Mike in his post-snow humiliation, trying to sound like an enthusiastic booster New Year's Eve on Times Square. "New York's very lucky because we have America," he said at one point, which would make us lucky in the same way Grand Forks, Montana, and Plano, Texas, are lucky. He was going for the national angle, but let's face it, his oblique campaign for some sort of role in the next presidential race is going nowhere.

We elected him - three times - not because he was going to be fun to watch but because he looked as if he knew how to run things. Now, you've got to wonder. He doesn't even seem to notice when he's wrong, and he's becoming more arbitrary by the day.

The out-of-nowhere elevation of Cathie Black to schools chancellor left all the school policy folk who expect to be consulted - or at least notified - about such a big decision permanently outraged and alienated. Bloomberg wasted a lot of good will and favor chips for nothing.

He's suffering from third-term funk. When a new mayor or governor comes into office, he or she can happily spend years cleaning up the mess. Bloomberg, who was Rudy Giuliani's heir apparent, had to pretend that Giuliani left him an efficient, smooth-running shift but everybody knew better. He devoted himself to making the school system more accountable, the planning and zoning system more rational, the workforce more efficient.

But he wasn't perfect. He made some bad trade offs, notably in union contracts that traded modest productivity gains for massive new costs in salary, pensions and health care. And he doesn't seem capable of fixing them because somewhere along the line the city he was elected to improve became his business. The reformer became the defensive CEO.

If it's this bad now, what will he be like in 2013?