City Council Speaker Christine Quinn unveiled an agreement with the Bloomberg administration Thursday morning on a trifecta of measures geared toward making it easier for small businesses in the city to launch and prosper.
Legislation will be introduced later this month to create a three-month penalty-forgiveness period for businesses and individuals with outstanding fines owed to the Environmental Control Board—the city tribunal that hears cases on quality-of-life violations issued by agencies like the Department of Buildings, the Department of Environmental Protection, the Department of Sanitation and the Fire Department.
Starting this fall, the city will waive interest and late fees for businesses that can prove they’ve corrected the underlying problems. Officials hope the measure will help small businesses weighed down by the debts and simultaneously boost revenue for the city, which has struggled to collect nearly $200 million in outstanding fines.
“You hear plenty of talk about getting toxic assets off the books of the struggling banks,” Ms. Quinn said in a speech at the Crain’s Future of New York City Small Business conference. “Let’s get some toxic assets off of small businesses’ books so they can start fresh.”
The new law won’t help businesses, including restaurants, that owe money to tribunals run by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene or the Department of Consumer Affairs. But a second measure will help restaurants contend with the expensive and time consuming start-up process.
Ms. Quinn announced a pilot program to launch this fall that will coordinate inspections among three city agencies: the health department, the buildings department and the Fire Department. The agencies will begin their tag-team approach with restaurants, which require the most agency inspections in order to open. If the pilot program works, it could be expanded to other types of businesses.
Finally, Ms. Quinn formally announced the formation of a regulatory review panel charged with examining agency rules and regulations that affect small business, with the aim of stripping away those that are outdated or unnecessarily interfere with business operations. Council members, including David Yassky, D-Brooklyn, and James Oddo, R-Staten Island, will sit on the panel, along with representatives of the mayor’s office and heads of city agencies. They’ll issue a report to the mayor and council speaker by the end of the year.
Mr. Yassky has said for the panel to be effective, members need to go one-by-one through rules and regulations and eliminate those that do not serve a legitimate public interest.
Ms. Quinn suggested the panel examine the possibility of requiring a small-business impact statement before any new enforcement regulations are instituted. An estimated 70,000 small businesses spanning 55 categories are licensed by the city’s Department of Consumer Affairs alone. And untold numbers of regulations affecting companies small and large are enforced by other agencies, ranging from the health department to the buildings department.
Business owners argue the city has become dependent on fines to pad its coffers during tough times. Indeed, the city plans to take in $894 million in fines in fiscal 2010, up $112 million from the previous year. Most of the increase comes from additional cameras at traffic lights, tougher enforcement of “blocking the box” traffic rules, and a new data-mining system that will catch scofflaws who owe the city money.
The suite of initiatives did not address complaints by small businesses who say they’re squeezed by high rents in the city. Ms. Quinn said a proposal in the council that would institute arbitration for commercial rents has drawn the ire of landlords and that members have yet to come up with a plan that strikes the right balance between property owners’ rights and commercial tenants’ needs.
“I don’t have an answer,” she said, adding that the council is committed to hammering out a solution. “Probably everyone won’t love it, but if some love it and some hate it, we’ve probably hit the nail on the head.”