The Sandwich Shop in Brooklyn — a popular eatery in the Williamsburg community — served Mayor Bill de Blasio and two City Council members Thursday as they sought input from them as to how to help mom and pop stores thrive.
Not only did they get a stomach full of eclectic sandwiches that they purchased at the counter, but owners Ricardo Picon, an immigrant of Venezuela and his wife Clarisa Penzini, from Corsica, Italy, also gave them a gingerly earful.
Picon and his wife said they have a successful 7-year-old business, but not without some hardships. A new bike lane that runs the full length of Grand Street where they are located, eliminated parking on the south side of the street and plastic barriers separate that lane from the roadway – making it extremely difficult to get deliveries. Trucks sometimes park on the bike lane because there is no other place to make deliveries – making a sliver of space for bikes to pass through.
“I think it’s great they have the bike lanes, but they should make even special times when we can get deliveries, that would be right for us,” Picon said. “Right now, there is no place for drop-offs and deliveries and while we are a small shop, we have a lot of customers and our deliveries are sometimes a van load, so there should at least be some times of the day for that.”
The complaints from Picon and other merchants include surprise inspections that yield summonses for obscure infractions with no ability for the merchant to correct the problem before having to pay large fines. Other merchants complained of Sanitation officers issuing fines for trash on the sidewalk or in the street – merchant required to sweep 18-inches from the curb.
The mayor and city council members listened intently, but already had a good idea as to what to do. With that in mind, they followed up their meal with a press conference at a local school gymnasium that includes “educating versus fining.”
Mayor de Blasio said the plan has two parts: the first is to slash fines for health and cleanliness violations for small business and instead, educate business owners of the laws on the books that business needs to abide. Second, update the laws on the books and “eliminate outdated and ridiculous rules that no longer apply.”
“When I was the Public Advocate, I was told there was no way to change the fines and that it was an excuse to raise revenues,” said de Blasio to a room packed with Williamsburg merchants. “If we can cut fines by 40 percent, we could give $100 million back to small business. The mission is to correct the problems, not take their money – the city is on your side.”
De Blasio indicated there were 12,000 vacant storefront in New York City because of rising rents, difficult business rules, archaic requirements that sometimes involve multiple agencies to sign off on changes and improvements – some of which have already been changed.
Councilman Antonio Reynoso who represents Williamsburg, recognized that the city already put pressure on small business by requiring paid sick time, paid leave and benefits.
“We’ve got to talk about how we can help business, so we have to look at the laws and see how an unintentional mishap gets merchants fines that are difficult to pay,” Reynoso said.
Councilman Andy Cohen of the Bronx joined Reynoso and the mayor for lunch at the Sandwich Shop. He is also the chairman of the Consumer Protection Committee.
“I think we are on to something here and we want to deliver good news and find a way to help our small businesses,” he said.
Councilman Stephen Levin recognized that commercial rent were rising three to four times and forcing out small mom and pop stores and then being replaced by “multi national companies.”
“When I talk to small businesses, the first thing they talk about is the fines – we have to do something as people invest their life savings and it means the difference between failing and succeeding,” Levin said.
Greg Bishop, commissioner of Small Business Services, said some of the rules still on the books don’t even apply.
One of those rules came to a head over the summer in which many stores were being hit with $10,000 fines for signage on their establishments that may have been there for decades – one hardware store in Bay Ridge passed down from generations was hit with this fine. Council members called for a moratorium on fines for store signage and those businesses should be “refunded.”
Another archaic rule can get an establishment a fine for serving food, even if they are not in fact serving any. Another rule put unreasonable requirements on gyms that dates back to the days of bath houses.
“This is part of the Blueprint to Save Our City because if we don’t protect our small businesses, we will be losing our identity as New Yorker’s and that is a real concern,” de Blasio declared.