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Queens Chronicle

‘Fine first, ask questions later’

Claiming city harms small biz, public advocate sues to get data

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Posted: Thursday, August 2, 2012 10:30 am

Public Advocate Bill de Blasio last week sued the Bloomberg administration to force it to release records on fines charged to small businesses for code violations. City revenue from fines has nearly doubled during Mayor Bloomberg’s 10 years in office to nearly $820 million, according to de Blasio, a candidate for mayor in 2013.

Like many small business owners and merchant advocates, de Blasio contends that the city is issuing too many violations in some areas to increase revenue from fines. The mayor frequently boasts of keeping the budget balanced without raising taxes, but many critics contend he has managed that largely through the imposition of too many fines, especially those charged to families and small businesses.

De Blasio said the city has refused to turn over data he has sought since May 8 on “which violations and policies have driven the increase in fine-based revenue, and which neighborhoods are bearing the brunt of enforcement.”

“Fines have been increasing for so long it’s become de facto city policy,” de Blasio said in an announcement sent to the media after the lawsuit was filed July 26. “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.”

The announcement included a statement in support from Nick Lugo, president of the New York City Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

“These fines have gotten out of control,” Lugo said. “This isn’t about enforcing laws anymore, it’s about raising money by ticketing for anything and everything. The public advocate is right to investigate what’s behind all these fines so we can take some of the burden off small businesses.”

De Blasio issued what he called the Red Tape Report last November, addressing the impact of fines on businesses and citing examples of what he considers overzealous enforcement, such as a store in Brooklyn that was issued three violations costing $250 each one day for not having its return policy posted on three different cash registers.

The report advocated three reforms: letting business owners contest violations online, over the phone or by mail, instead of having to appear in person; establishing classification systems for enforcement on the severity of violations at any city agency that does not have them; and offering business owners the chance to fix first-time, low-risk violations without immediately being penalized.

Now de Blasio is seeking detailed data on fines and patterns of enforcement from the departments of Consumer Affairs, Health, Transportation, Buildings, Finance and Sanitation. He said that prior case law confirms that the public advocate has a right to the kind of executive agency information he is seeking.

The city Law Department said it is reviewing the suit, but declined to comment further.

Perfectly willing to comment, however, were sources in Queens’ political, business and civic spheres.

“We have small businesses call here all the time,” said Bob Holden, president of the Middle Village-based Juniper Park Civic Association. “All the penalties and summonses and everything make it much harder to make it, and it’s tough enough already.”

One of those who says fines and the threat of fines makes business tough is Maspeth florist Tony Nunziato, who said he knows of three other flower shops that have been driven out of business recently in large part due to $250 fines for not having every item individually priced.

“They’re hammering small businesses needlessly,” Nunziato said. “Meanwhile they ignore the illegal vendors selling flowers on the corner every holiday.”

City Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park) said he finds the Health Department in particular to be “very arbitrary and capricious” in how it issues summonses to restaurants, and that the Buildings Department is also too quick to impose fines.

DeBlasio is one of several Democrats aiming for the mayoralty in 2013, but Holden, Nunziato and Ulrich all said his concern for small businesses is genuine, and not politically motivated.

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