City Fines Are Choking Us: Shopkeepers

April 25, 2012 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
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By Raanan Geberer

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

FLATBUSH — A $625 fine for use of an antique, manual cash register in a century-old barber shop. A $250 fine for a 14-cent mistake on the price of ChapStick at a pharmacy. A $250 fine for posting separate haircut prices for men and women at a salon.

The old saying, “Let the punishment fit the crime,” apparently no longer applies.

Furious shopkeepers with stores on the recently renovated Newkirk Plaza joined Public Advocate Bill de Blasio on Monday to denounce frivolous fines.

Leon Kogut, the barber who received the fine for using the vintage cash register, is the proprietor of Leon’s Fantasy Cuts, which he said is the oldest continuously operating barbershop in the city.

“How come your cash register doesn’t give a receipt?” the inspector asked him.

“Because the cash register is also 100 years old, from 1919,” Kogut answered. “The ticket was also because I didn’t have a rubber stamp [for receipts], but I didn’t know that you had to have one.”

One irate small business owner after another, gathered on the plaza, told horror stories of uncaring city inspectors imposing what they described as unfair fines by the Department of Consumer Affairs. They said inspectors would covertly enter their stores — without identifying themselves as city agents — ask questions, look around, and then produce summonses, often for violations of regulations the merchants weren’t even aware they were breaking.

Kogut began to collect summonses from other merchants as a protest, then approached both Council Member Mathieu Eugene (D-Kensington/Ditmas Park/Flatbush) and Robin Redmond, executive director of the Flatbush Development Council. Thanks to their intervention, he was able to get his $625 fine reduced.

“Look at stores like Leon’s,” Redmond said at the rally. “He doesn’t have a computer in his store. His signs are 20 years old. How can he get news of the new regulations if the city doesn’t make an effort to tell him?”

Other merchants also talked about what they called excessive and frivolous code enforcement. For example, Yan Kotelyer, owner of Veyan Optical, received a $150 violation for not posting his minimum credit-card charge. “It’s $50,” he said, “but sometimes it’s flexible when I know people.”

According to Kotelyer, the inspector came in, asked questions and only then flashed his badge.

Alex Belanchuk, owner of Alex Shoes, was told by an inspector that he should not be selling orthopedic shoes. Belanchuk is also a podiatrist. “He asked for my license, but when I showed it to him, he ignored it,” Belanchuk said.

Margarita Feldman, owner of Plaza Hair Studio, was fined because her receipts did not have the store’s address — even though it did have its phone number. She also was fined for posting different prices for men’s and women’s haircuts. “I told him, what takes longer, a man’s haircut, that can take 5 minutes to do, or someone with long hair like myself?” she asked.

De Blasio is proposing a five-point plan to deal with the problem. He recommends:

•Setting up a team of 25 “red tape cutters” that will interview business owners;

•Allowing small-business owners to contest all violations online, by phone or by mail;

•Setting up a pilot project in one community district per borough to increase compliance through education rather than the immediate issuance of fines;

•Making public a full breakdown of agency revenue from fines by type of violation, neighborhood and business sector;

•and creating a permanent regulatory review panel to eliminate outdated rules.

De Blasio also alleged that the city has a deliberate policy of aggressive collection of fines.

“In 2002, at the beginning of the Bloomberg administration, the city collected $467 million through fines,” he said. “Last year, it was $793 million.”

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