City Council fights for Mom and Pop
Enforcement of an obscure forty-year-old law - prohibiting ‘visual clutter’ on awnings above storefronts - is the latest episode in the seemingly endless string of trivial citations issued by the city. This time, however, the mom and pop stores in the city might come up the winner, because that law is on track to be suspended following Tuesday’s vote of the City Council.
In the wake of tickets being issued for infractions ranging from sitting on the steps of a subway station to mixing recyclables with garbage, the City Council acted swiftly to place a six-month moratorium on enforcement of the awning law. The measure passed the Transportation Committee by a vote of 8-1 on Tuesday and will go before the City Council on June 25. "If they enforce an arbitrary law, we are going to call them on it," said City Councilman Joe Addabbo.
Mayor Bloomberg, who is expected to support the legislation, must act upon it within 30 days. The moratorium will give legislators time to draft a new law that suits the contemporary corporate climate. "As City Councilman, my job is to ensure that the city is not trying to balance the budget on the backs of working people," said City Councilman James Sanders.
Citing a 1962 law that had laid dormant for decades, fines of $2,500 for the first offense and up to $10,000 for further infractions were levied to ‘mom and pop’ shops across the city. The freshly dusted-off law was so esoteric that neither the shop owners nor the awning makers were aware that their signs were in violation of any city ordinance.
"These merchants aren’t out to break the laws," said City Councilman Hiram Monserrate. "This legislation will allow the city to work with small businesses to preserve the city’s economic engine, rather than forcing them to choose between fixing their awnings and going out of business."
Without warning, the Department of Buildings of the City of New York began issuing summonses last year to shopkeepers for excessive writing on storefront awnings. Company logos, telephone numbers, hours of operation, in fact, everything except the name of the business and address of the building in lettering 12 inches or less are in violation of the law. "Thousands of merchants in every community of the city are in violation of this regulation without knowing it," said City Councilman David Weprin. "[They] now find themselves faced with the horrendous possibility of closing their stores because they cannot afford to correct this type of violation."
The Appetito Deli on Rockaway Beach Blvd and 89 Street is among the countless merchants in Rockaway that are in violation of the law. Daniel Lee, the manager, was unaware that the city placed such provisions upon awnings on storefronts. The Korean immigrant said that the Mayor doesn’t understand the working class. "If you see Bloomberg, tell him, ‘Please Stop,’" said Lee.
In the by-gone era in which the law went on the books, awnings were used primarily to provide shade. Since the Sixties, awnings have evolved into multicolored signs – an avenue for business to attract customers by offering information about the shop. Yet city laws failed to keep up with the times. "The city’s laws must reflect the changing realities of the last 41 years," said City Council Speaker Gifford Miller. "The world has changed a lot since 1962. Now it’s time for the law to catch up."
At a time when businesses across the city are struggling to stay afloat the lofty fines had the potential to cause owners to close their doors. "Small businesses are the backbone of our economy," said Miller. "And with our economy at such a critical juncture, it is more important than ever that this city take steps to help – not to hurt – small businesses."
As City Hall faces a budget shortfall, the Bloomberg administration continues to pursue creative ways to raise revenue, though, the money often comes at the expense of the workingman. "It is short-sighted to generate revenue for the city by driving merchants out of business, especially during a recession," said Monserrate. "Now, more than ever, we need to support the entrepreneurs and workers who keep our city going."
The city has issued at least 1,200 summonses this year, though no tickets have been given to shopkeepers in Rockaway, according to the Rockaway Chamber of Commerce. "There is a better way to raise revenue than beating up on small businesses," said John Lepore, President, Rockaway Chamer of Commerce.
Coincidentally, the Rockaway Chamber of Commerce is in the process of instituting an awning replacement program for local businesses. A program of Project RED (Rockaway Economic Development), funded in part by a grant from New York State, will pay half the cost of new awnings for storeowners in Rockaway.
In the latest case of the voiceless working class being unduly taxed by the establishment, the City Council stepped up in support of the workingman. "These small business owners may not be at the top of the corporate food chain, but they put food on the table for working families across the city," said Monseratte.