Brooklyn Lawmakers today whole heartedly endorsed City Council Member Rafael Espinal‘s (D-Williamsburg, Cypress Hills, East New York) proposed legislation that would but put a moratorium on the city’s sudden surge in ticketing small businesses for awning violations.
Meanwhile, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and Assemblyman William Colton (D-Gravesend, Bensonhurst, Bath Beach, Dyker Heights) took the de Blasio Administration to task for possibly targeting small businesses across the borough and the city for the violations to increase revenue for the city, whose budget and patronage jobs has ballooned since de Blasio was elected.
Espinal’s bill now being negotiated between the Council and the administration calls for those who have paid the fine to receive waived permit fees, and expedited permit process for the new sign. There is also discussion for assistance in paying for the new signs. For those that have yet to pay, they will only have to pay 25% of the base fine. There will be a year long moratorium on the Department of Buildings (DOB) issuing of any business awning or sign violations, and an interagency task force established to better coordinate educational outreach.
“When small businesses were initially hit by a DOB sweep, we thought it was an isolated incident,” said Espinal, who became aware of the problem after dozens of businesses on Fulton Street in Cypress Hills were issued these crippling fines, seemingly out of the blue.
“The fines were devastating enough that we immediately started working on legislation. As the bill got more attention, we came to learn that over 900 businesses from across the 5 boroughs have been affected. Since then more and more businesses from across the 5 boroughs have reached out to my office and their Council members, telling us about how the awning they have had for generations is now going to cost them tens of thousands of dollars to replace,” he added.
Adams said the city must practice what it preaches in supporting small businesses, rather than suddenly deciding to ticket blitz a particular issue after decades of spotty enforcement.
“Brooklyn’s BIDs have sounded the alarm on the chilling impact that expensive sign and awning fines have without proper government education and support, and today we are hearing too many troubling stories of small businesses — many of them immigrant-run — that feel they have been unfairly targeted,” said Adams.
Colton said he is furious that all of a sudden small business merchants got hit with fines for having over sized signage over their stores. Merchants are swearing that they had no knowledge about the law.”
“The Department of Buildings was not enforcing the awning and sign regulations over the years. When inspectors began issuing tickets, it felt like a sting operation. This is why I can call it a “ticket invasion,” said Colton.
“The city administration’s bureaucracy is harassing small business owners, driving them out of business, forcing them to leave the city and that has to stop. I believe that all the merchants that received fines should have them waived. I demand that bureaucratic regulations such as this, which place unnecessary restrictions, other than for safety reasons, should be repealed by city government,” he added.
But DOB Spokesperson Andrew Rudansky denied a crackdown was occurring, telling KCP that the department is legally obligated to respond to all such 311 calls of any sign violations, the existing regulations of which have been on the books since 1968. These include a mandate that all non-painted signs greater than six square feet in size must require a permit and placement by a licensed sign-hanger as well as neighborhood zoning laws.
Rudansky also noted the city council itself passed a law last year that posed a minimum fine for business owners that put up such illegal signs and awnings at $6,000.
“There is nothing wrong with an owner wanting to hang a sign outside their business to draw in customers,” said Rudansky. “But for the safety of pedestrians walking underneath, it must be permitted by the city and put up by a licensed professional who can do the work properly.”
City Council Member Justin Brannan (D-Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Bensonhurst, Bath Beach) said the last thing small business owners need are new fines and penalties being assessed because somebody got the idea to start making 311 complaints to make a quick buck.
“Until the city can get a handle on exactly what is going on with these complaints and come up with a better way of dealing with them, I’m calling for a moratorium on sign violations and fines unless there is a public safety issue. I am also requesting an investigation into the complaints themselves. Abusing government resources like 311 and DOB inspectors for financial benefit is a crime,” said Brannan.
City Council Member Carlos Menchaca (D-Sunset Park, Red Hook) said it is unacceptable that the city impose regulations that can easily cripple small businesses, the majority of which are immigrant-owned.
“As a City, we must encourage our small businesses, including our immigrant-owned businesses, to thrive. I stand with my colleagues in calling for a moratorium on signage fines until legislation is passed that would comprehensively address the unfair penalties imposed on our businesses, and an assessment of the fairness and efficacy of existing regulations,” said Menchaca.
City Council Member Kalman Yeger (D-Boro Park, Bensonhurst, Midwood)said it’s become very clear that sign enforcement has little to do with ensuring public safety.
“Signs installed decades ago are resulting in violations for the first time. Whether due to anonymous complaints, overzealous enforcement, or a combination, it needs to stop now. The city should focus its efforts on creating a hospitable environment for small businesses to grow and thrive, not terrorizing them with crippling penalties for signs that post no risk to public safety,” he said.
The increasing violations come as the city budget has increased more than 20 percent since de Blasio took office in 2014. He has also added 25,000 more jobs on the city payroll.