Aug. 25, 2015 By Christian Murray
The amount of money New York City has been collecting in fines from western Queens business owners has dropped significantly in the past year as the City continues to shed its ‘gotcha’ inspection culture.
Sunnyside small businesses got hit with $27,500 in fines for the year ending June 2015, down from $137,000 for the same 12 month period ending June 2014, according to the Department of Consumer Affairs.
Woodside business also received some relief, with business owners paying $102,000 in fines, compared to $178,000 in fiscal year 2014.
These figures are among a citywide reduction, where the amount of fines assessed fell from $32.5 million to just over $15.7 million year-over-year, according to the Department of Consumer Affairs.
Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, who represents Sunnyside, Woodside and Long Island City, said “We used to hear all the time about excessive fines.”
“It was chronic and pervasive and seemed that the [Bloomberg] administration’s time was being spent going after small businesses for revenue,” Van Bramer added.
Horror stories included businesses that were fined when litter blew in front of their store; restaurants stung with hefty non food-related fines; and businesses hit up for not displaying the right signage.
The administration introduced the Small Business Relief Package last year that now provides business owners with the opportunity to correct minor problems that would have previously resulted in a fine.
For instance, a store that failed to post its refund policy on the wall would have previously faced a $250 fine, Today, if it were a first time offense, a business owner would be able to submit proof that he or she has posted it within 30 days, and would not be a fined.
Inspectors, in some cases, are also providing warnings, instead of issuing violations. There is also greater focus on educating business owners as to what is required of them as opposed to writing out punitive fines.
“Sometimes a $500 to $1,000 fine is the financial straw that can break the back of a small business,” said Pat O’Brien, chairman of Community Board 2 and a lawyer for small businesses. “There has been a shift where we are starting to see these agencies become more reasonable.”
Patricia Dorfman, the director of the Sunnyside Chamber of Commerce, said that the organization has been receiving fewer complaints from local businesses about fines.
“Three years ago, a merchant who sweeps his sidewalk several times a day, said he received a hefty fine for a gum wrapper dropped seconds after he had swept,” Dorfman said. “So there does seem to be better judgment used by the city in targeting already beleaguered small business.”
Meanwhile, Councilman Costa Constantinides, who represents Astoria, said that his office now receives fewer complaints from business owners about violations than in the past. He said that when he was running for office at the end of 2012 business owners it was a big problem.
The decrease in fines essentially puts more money back into the pockets of business owners, Van Bramer said, who hire people and help make communities strong.
Despite the reduction in fines, Van Bramer said that the city is still enforcing the laws that are on the books. “It just isn’t a game of gotcha like it used to be,” he said.