NEW YORK—Small businesses are getting hit by frequent fines and too much red tape, said Public Advocate Bill de Blasio.
De Blasio said government should do more in some areas, but in the regulatory environment—such as the Department of Consumer Affairs inspecting small businesses—government should move out of the way.
“When I talk to small-business owners, they feel under siege by fines and fees like never before,” he said in a speech at NYU’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service Tuesday.
The city’s revenue from fines and forfeitures has almost doubled since 2002—from approximately $400 million that year to $800 million in 2011—according to analysis of city comptroller records by de Blasio’s office.
“Small businesses in New York City are really hurt by excessive fines,” Jonathan Bowles, executive director of the think tank Center for an Urban Future, said in an email. “I really feel like the Bloomberg administration’s economic development agencies have made real progress in rolling out programs to support small business. The problem is that all that good work gets nullified by the irrational and excessive fines.”
A family-run grocery store was fined $750 for not having a return policy sign next to each of its three registers, said de Blasio. Instead, they had it printed on each receipt. In another cited case, owners of a small business in the Bronx gave de Blasio’s office a copy of a letter from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOH) regarding fines, warning them that “contesting the fine may result in the business having to pay more and may require the business owner to wait for hours before a hearing is granted.”
Suing the City for Records
Agencies including the departments of finance, transportation, consumer affairs, and health and mental hygiene all recently ignored de Blasio’s request for records of fines, including type of violation, dollar amount, and geography, as well as whether the departments have any quotas or goals, and how much they spend on enforcement each year.
After receiving no response, he sued.
“Fines have been increasing for so long it’s become de facto city policy. We need answers about what this ‘fine first, ask questions later’ enforcement is doing to our small businesses and their ability to survive in this economy,” de Blasio said when announcing the lawsuit July 26, according to his website.
The Public Advocate’s Office exists as a middle man between the public and the government. One of its roles is to investigate recurring complaints. But this role doesn’t work without access to records, de Blasio argued in the lawsuit.
Restaurant owners have also frequently complained about fines over education; the DOH went before City Council in March about such complaints.
DOH referred questions to the city’s Law Department. Kate O’Brien Ahlers, press director of the law department, said the department has received the lawsuit and is reviewing it. The mayor’s office said the higher fines come from new laws put into place for public safety, such as safer driving, Ahlers added. Two other departments named in the lawsuit didn’t answer emailed inquiries before deadline.
In his speech Tuesday, de Blasio also recommended making sure the $17 billion the city spends every year goes to local businesses; cutting down “bureaucratic barriers” in the way of private development; shifting primary school education toward adequately preparing students for “high-growth, high paying fields like Information Technology.”Michael Schlein, former chief of staff for the city’s deputy mayor for finance and economic development, worked with de Blasio under former Mayor David Dinkins. “Everything in that speech is very realistic and very doable,” said Schlein after de Blasio’s speech. “And I’ve been working in government for years, so I think I have some sense of what’s doable and what’s not.”
In a time when the federal government “isn’t owning up to its responsibilities,” de Blasio said, “we have to focus more on what we can do for ourselves as a city.”
He applauded some of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s initiatives, such as the Applied Sciences competition that has spawned technology related-investments in three universities, and financial incentives to movie makers. But keeping up with the bigger cities of the world—London, Singapore, Shanghai—will take much more.
“The competition for jobs is coming from all corners,” de Blasio said.
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