‘Borough Bias’ Found in Small Business Inspections

Public Advocate and mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio (left) and Vishnu Mahadeo, of the Richmond Hill Economic Development Council, accuse the city of using fines against small business to boost funds at the expense of businesses in the outer boroughs, especially Queens. (Photo by Joseph Orovic/Queens Chronicle)

The community and ethnic media have extensively covered allegations by small businesses over what they consider excessive and unjust fines doled out by city agencies. In response, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio has released a report showing a recent spike in the amount of inspections and fines, particularly towards businesses in the outer boroughs.

Entitled “Borough Bias: How the Bloomberg Administration Drains,” the report released in late February found that the increase and fees are to “compensate for lost revenue” and “filling budget gaps.” The document breaks down the disproportionate amount of inspections in the outer boroughs, which result in small businesses there paying more fines than their Manhattan counterparts. Says the report:

Because of more frequent inspections, Bronx businesses pay seven percent more Consumer Affairs fines on average, those in Brooklyn pay five percent more, as do those in Queens (four percent) and Staten Island (two percent). Businesses in Manhattan pay 18 percent less in fines per business than the citywide average.

Mayor Bloomberg brushed off the release, saying in regards to the outer boroughs that, “Manhattan’s population is 1.5 million out of 8.4 million, so that shouldn’t be a surprise that there are more places to inspect [in the other boroughs].”

Queens Chronicle and the Bronx-based Riverdale Press focus on their respective boroughs in articles on the report, including experiences by local businesses fined for what they consider minor infractions.

Queens Chronicle‘s Joseph Orovic attended a press conference in Richmond Hill on February 25 held by De Blasio, who slammed the mayor, saying, “When Mayor Bloomberg sees these stores, he sees dollar signs.” The report determined that the majority of the top 10 businesses fined by two city departments were based in Queens.

De Blasio’s report found the borough’s businesses are 16 percent more likely to be inspected by the Department of Consumer Affairs than their siblings in Manhattan, resulting in a 22 percent higher outlay in fines in comparison to businesses across the East River.

The DCA seems to have it in for Queens, according to the report. It found nine of the agency’s 10 most-fined neighborhoods are in the borough. The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene follows a similar trend, with seven of the agency’s 10 most-fined neighborhoods in Queens.

The DCA fines have a higher occurrence south of the Long Island Expressway, with St. Albans, Springfield Gardens and Cambria Heights leading among all city neighborhoods.

“There is a shockingly clear pattern of over-enforcement in the outer boroughs and under-enforcement in Manhattan,” de Blasio said, adding the city’s budget outlay for 2010 to 2012 called for increased revenue from fines, which was then met by increased enforcement of arcane rules.

De Blasio, a Brooklyn Democrat who is running for mayor this year, shared anecdotes from business owners and said it comes down to “arbitrary and unfair judgments by inspectors.”

De Blasio told the story of a bar owner who used a fork to clean candle stands, leading to some dabs of wax on the untensil. A city inspector found the offending silverware and stuck the business owner with a fine, claiming the fork could find its way into the other clean silverware, and then into a patron’s mouth.

The bar doesn’t serve food.

Then comes the frustration of fighting against a fine, which, said the public advocate, can take a full work day. De Blasio wants some business owners to get a second chance, with fines administered only if upon a return visit by inspectors, the problem remains.

The chance at recourse is what de Blasio ultimately seeks. He suggested a grace period for some violations, allowing inspectors to return after several days to see if the violation was addressed, and fines doled out only to those who ignored the first warning.

It’s a much better solution, he claimed, than fining businesses for “offenses, both real and imagined,” he said.

Turning to the Bronx, Riverdale Press‘ Adam Wisnieski, looks at how city inspectors pay extra attention to small businesses in the Bronx when it comes to issuing low-level fines.

In Fiscal Year 2012, businesses in zip code 10471 paid an average $567 in fines and businesses in zip code 10463 paid an average $510, compared to the citywide average of $447.25, according to data the public advocate’s office obtained from the Department of Consumer Affairs. Businesses in local zip codes were also inspected more often and issued more violations than the citywide average in 2012.

Mr. de Blasio charges that the Bloomberg administration is targeting the outer boroughs with low-level offenses to raise the revenue. Compared to the citywide average, Mr. de Blasio determined Bronx businesses are inspected by Consumer Affairs 8 percent more frequently, the highest rate of any borough.

The department that conducts restaurant inspections made almost double the amount in fines last year as it did three years ago.

Mr. de Blasio’s report determined the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which inspects restaurants, generated $52 million in fines in Fiscal Year 2012, an increase from $27.8 million in fines three years earlier. The approximately 27,000 food service establishments paid an average of $1,925 in fines in 2012.

Restaurant owners started complaining about the increase in inspections and petty fines after the city implemented the letter grading system for restaurants in 2010. Wisnieski finds that local merchant groups in Riverdale and Kingsbridge did not observe “local businesses getting an unfair share of fines or violations,” but instead, “that many restaurant owners complain about the city’s crackdown on food codes.” The reporter gives the example of a local bakery and cafe, which, according to its owner, got “fined for stupid things.”

Ellyn Kaplan, owner of Cafeccino on West 231st Street, said city inspectors look for ways to fine restaurants, even if they are awarded an A grade. She said she received a $700 fine for a bruised tomato last year.

“This is absolutely a way for them to make money because I can still get an A, but I will get fined for stupid things. They’re just making money,” Ms. Kaplan said.

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