Public Advocate Bill de Blasio today 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 $850 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 on Thursday. "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. This is not an administration that willingly hands over information that contradicts its press releases. It is time to end the stonewalling and open up the books on small business fines.”
The announcement also 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, citing in particular the outcome of Green vs. Safir, in which former Public Advocate Mark Green sued the Police Department under former Commissioner Howard Safir over data access.
DeBlasio, who served as a city councilman from Brooklyn before being elected public advocate in 2009, is one of several Democrats aiming for the mayoralty in 2013.