Tag Archives: Department of Consumer Affairs

Op-Ed: Stop the fines


| oped@queenscourier.com


MAUREEN REGAN

It is harder than ever to run a small business in New York City. The cost of doing business here is the highest in the country. On top of that, the number of violations and fines imposed on small businesses throughout the city, and especially in the outer boroughs, has skyrocketed. To make matters worse, it seems unlikely that this trend will reverse anytime soon.

Reports have emerged that several years ago the Department of Consumer Affairs instituted a “25 percent threshold” for their inspectors, meaning they’re expected to average one violation for every four businesses they inspect. This has led to a proliferation of fines for minor violations that could easily be remedied, such as signage issues or litter. Often unable to afford legal recourse, small business owners, especially immigrant merchants, have been vulnerable to such actions.

As a result, in 2012, the city generated $66.2 million in fine revenue from small businesses, up from $12.6 million in 2002. These additional funds have been used to plug budgetary gaps and have contributed to the passage of on-time, balanced budgets over the past few years. In fact, the revenue generated from small business fines seems to have become a requirement of the city’s budget, necessitating city commissioners to produce their target revenues and force their inspectors to comply.

The continued use of city agency inspectors to generate city operating revenues is a horrendous abuse of small businesses, which too often forces them to shutter and ultimately results in an overall negative effect on jobs and city revenue. This cannot be permitted in the next administration and city council.

The mayoral candidates have recognized the need to address the punitive regulatory environment and have expressed their commitment to reducing this burden on the small business community. However, given the realities of New York City’s fiscal situation as well as the expenditure demands on the city budget, the status quo is unlikely to change substantially.

According to the Partnership for New York City’s “NYC Jobs Blueprint,” by 2015, the city will face at least a $2.4 billion budget shortfall, owing in large part to the explosion in pension and health care costs. Unfortunately, efforts to reform these systems have gone nowhere. The higher these costs grow, the fewer resources the city will have to support essential services and the more reliant it will be on alternative revenue streams, such as small business fines.

Our next mayor and city council need to prioritize getting New York City’s fiscal house in order. New York City budgets must cease requiring commissioners to produce exorbitant levels of revenue from fines. Only then will we be able to appropriately address the burdens facing local merchants across the five boroughs. The future of our small businesses is in their hands.

Maureen Regan is the vice president of the Queensboro Hill Neighborhood Association, founder of Green Earth Clothing and Green Earth Urban Gardens, and a proud supporter of GoBizNYC.

 

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Queens street vendors, businesses compete for customers


| aaltamirano@queenscourier.com

THE COURIER/ Photos by Johann Hamilton

While a bill that would regulate the number of mobile street vendors still sits in the state Senate, businesses remain frustrated as they continue to battle to keep their customers.

For the past few years, businesses said they have seen mobile street vendors growing to a point where pedestrians can find a handful on one block. They provide residents and visitors with an endless amount of handmade goods.

Yet, even as their popularity has grown there are also the questions of whether these street vendors affect larger businesses and if they should receive letter grades from the city’s Department of Health like restaurants.

Food vendors are licensed and inspected by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH). According to the DOHMH, it attempts annual on-the-street inspections at each mobile vending unit and also conducts inspections after receiving complaints.

According to the DOHMH, records of inspections are available to the public by calling 3-1-1 and giving the food cart’s permit number or license number.

Mobile food vendors are subject to the Health and Administrative Codes, but do not receive letter grades.

State Senator Jose Peralta introduced legislation in 2011 to grade the food vendors the same way as restaurants in order to ensure the best quality for buyers and help remove vendors that sell goods illegally. The bill still sits in the Senate’s Health Committee.

“Whether buying a meal in a restaurant or from a mobile food vendor, consumers should know that what they’re eating has met certain health and safety standards,” said Peralta. “New York City street food is famous around the world. With a letter-grade system, our street food will also be known for its safety and cleanliness.”

Peralta’s office also continues to hear from local businesses about the growing number of vendors that cause them problems.

To sell or lease other goods and services in a public space, potential vendors need to apply for a General Street Vendor License from the Department of Consumer Affairs.

Potential vendors must have both a food vendor license and permit for their cart. DOHMH issues a maximum total of 5,100 different food unit permits and over the last few years, the number of applications for licenses have increased.

The Courier took to the streets to speak to some vendors and businesses in Bayside and Jackson Heights, two areas in the borough that have a large presence of mobile street vendors.

“I’ve been in this same spot for 16 years because it’s in my neighborhood,” said John Amanatidis, who owns a shish kebab stand on the corner of Northern Boulevard and Bell Boulevard in Bayside. “We do have problems with parking because sometimes people park in this parking lot while they get food here.”

Amanatidis’ stand and a hotdog vendor on Northern Boulevard are being accused of invading private property as their customers use the parking lot owned by CVS Pharmacy and Party City. According to the businesses, this has their potential patrons thinking twice about coming back.

“Business has been very slow because of the street vendor competition,” said Sonia Chawle, owner of Fine Indian Cuisine and Sweets in Jackson Heights. “It’s very different from how it used to be, and I think it’s like that for everyone who has a restaurant around here right now.”

Vendors say they are trying to make a living and do not want to harm the surrounding businesses.

“I put my cart here because it’s where I can make the most business,” said Aman Bachoo, who owns a halal cart in Jackson Heights. “That’s the same reason the restaurants are here too, so I’m not doing anything wrong.”

Even with the conflict between some vendors and businesses, some brick-and-mortar establishments find no problem with the presence of street carts.

According to one employee at Mita Jewelers in Jackson Heights, the jewelry vendors don’t affect business because they sell artificial items compared to the 22 karat gold jewelry available at the store.

“They have their customers and we have ours,” said Alfredo Herrero, manager of Nuevo Tacos Al Suadero. “They’re making competition but not that much.”

Rosendo Medina, a Jackson Heights resident who often eats at a vending cart called Tacos Del Carrito, said the food he gets from the vendors has a unique flavor that keeps bringing him back.

“Sometimes the food here is more delicious,” he said. “Restaurants hire chefs and they don’t know the seasoning. With restaurants you have to wait 20 to 30 minutes for food.”

Food cart patron Steven James echoed the sentiment.

“Even if they [falafel stands] were farther away and more expensive, I would still go out of my way to find them, it has nothing to do with not wanting to give other places my business,” he said.

Additional reporting by Johann Hamilton, Benjamin Fang and Zachary Kraehling

 

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Queens small businesses burdened by fines, says de Blasio


| tcullen@queenscourier.com

Public Advocate Bill de Blasio's Flickr

Queens small businesses are suffering because of excessive fines from city agencies, while Manhattan is left practically untouched, according to Public Advocate Bill de Blasio.

Fine revenue from the Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) and Department of Health (DOH) on Queens businesses has risen by $54 million between fiscal years 2002 and 2012, de Blasio said at a Tuesday, February 25 press conference. The public advocate alleged the city had continued to inconsistently fine business in the outer boroughs, particularly Queens, to drive revenue for the city in what he called “shocking, clear patterns.” It was from disproportionate fines on small businesses, he said, that the city had continued to make money as part of budgetary plans.

“It’s time to stop balancing the city budget on the backs of small business,” he said.

The announcement is part of a push by the public advocate’s office to show the discrepancy between how Manhattan businesses were treated in comparison to other areas of the city.

Richmond Hill, where de Blasio delivered his address, was one of the hardest hit areas in the city, he said. Because many of these business owners work long hours, and more than the traditional five days, going to court and fighting fines is nearly impossible for them.

Vishnu Mahadeo, president of the Richmond Hill Economic Development Council, said the city had consistently picked on the immigrant communities.

Andy Jarbandhn, a business owner on Liberty Avenue, said he had gotten hammered with fines from DCA on matters he had never been informed of. Jarbandhn said he had racked up thousands of dollars in fines because of issues he tried to remedy — only to be hit with a follow-up fine.

“It seems we’re being led down a dark alley where we have no idea what the rules are,” he said.

The data provided by de Blasio’s office shows a major spike in fine revenue beginning with the economic downturn from 2007 to 2008. The public advocate said these “ill-gotten gains” were to balance the city budget at the expense of uninformed business owners.

 

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Amendment to bring sidewalk cafes back to LIC


| aaltman@queenscourier.com

Photo courtesy of the Department of Consumer Affairs

Once hampered by noise complaints and numerous tickets, Manducatis Rustica owner Gianna Cerbone-Teoli is looking forward to resurrecting her Vernon Boulevard establishment’s sidewalk café.

“I’m ecstatic about it,” said Cerbone-Teoli. “It’s really nice to see people sitting outside on the street and it brings more people to the area.”

Presented at a community meeting by a representative from the Department of City Planning (DCP), restrictions preventing sidewalk cafes in Long Island City and Sunnyside Gardens will be lifted, pending approval from both the local Community Board and City Council.

Main and upcoming retail zones, including Vernon Boulevard, Borden Avenue, Jackson Avenue, 21st Street, Crescent Street, 44th Drive, Court Square and 43rd Avenue, will receive permission to add unenclosed sidewalk cafes to their storefronts if the amendment passes. According to the representative, longstanding LIC restaurant Waterfront Crab House was “grandfathered” under the arrangement. Riverview restaurant, already equipped with a sidewalk café, is not included in the plan because of its location on Center Boulevard, outside the designated zone.

Community Board 1 voted to approve the motion as long as the amendment allowed enclosed sidewalk cafes for those with appropriate clearance in front of their business. Enclosed sidewalk cafes are currently not included under the revision.

According to the Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA), the fee for an unenclosed two-year sidewalk café license is $510 in addition to a consent fee to use the public sidewalk and a security deposit. Businesses hoping to institute an enclosed café must also pay a city planning fee, varying depending on size, zone and the type of café.
Alcohol may be served in sidewalk cafes if the restaurant has obtained a license from the State Liquor Authority (SLA) and beverages are distributed only by a server.

According to Arthur Rosenfield, president of the Long Island City/Astoria Chamber of Commerce, nearby commercial strips in Astoria, such as Broadway, 30th Avenue and Ditmars Boulevard, have seen a boom in business since the installation of outdoor dining spaces.

“People like [sidewalk cafes] and the business and restaurants need to have that kind of additional presence for economic reasons,” said Rosenfield. “They need it for revenue and to be attractive – the European-style cafés are very attractive to people and they’re bringing people to the neighborhood. It’s very positive for the community.”

 

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Briarwood deli hit with violation for selling “loosie” cigarettes


| mchan@queenscourier.com

THE COURIER/Photo by Melissa Chan

A city investigation pinned a previously problematic deli grocery store in Briarwood with only one violation after multiple residents complained the store was selling “loosie” cigarettes and packs of smokes to minors.

Community Board 8 filed a complaint against the 84th Deli Grocery to the city’s Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) this April, according to District Manager Marie Adam-Ovide. The store, located at 84th Drive and Manton Street, was formerly Stop & Go before new owners took over in late 2008.

According to a spokesperson for the DCA, the city agency issued one violation for selling loosie cigarettes to an adult during inspections this May, but the store was not found to be selling tobacco to minors.

However, numerous violations for selling alcohol to minors — accumulated since 2006 under previous owners — did cause the New York State Liquor Authority to revoke the deli’s liquor license in November 2009, records showed.

The store — which no longer sells alcohol — has stayed out of trouble for the most part since then, said manager Mohammed Ahmed.

Ahmed, who worked for a couple of months under the former owners, said he makes sure his employees always ask for proper identification to avoid repeating problems of the past.

“You have to do that,” he said. “How much profit could you make on one pack of cigarettes if you get a ticket?”

Deli employee Sharif Sagar, 36, said he IDs unfamiliar faces who are seeking smokes, but leaves the store’s regulars alone.

“We always ask for ID,” he said. “But if I’ve known you for a long time, I’m not going to ask you again because I checked already.”

The store’s new owners were barred from applying for a new liquor license for two years after it was terminated, but they are now eligible for one, Ahmed said.

The NYPD did not return calls for comment, but Adam-Ovide said police have not seen any illegal sales so far.