The city must refund the thousands of dollars it collected from small business owners it fined for their stores’ signs, according to a Bensonhurst state pol, who blasted officials for refusing to guarantee reimbursements in a recently passed bill that prevents such violations from being issued.
“If we’re serious about supporting small businesses, the city has to stop doing things that are anti-small business,” said Assemblyman William Colton.
Forty-six of Council’s 51 members on Jan. 9 voted to pass Bushwick Councilman Raphael Espinal’s signage bill. The legislation — which still must be signed by Mayor DeBlasio — would prevent Department of Buildings bigwigs from issuing signage violations for two years, and waive outstanding fines for violations dating back to Dec. 28, 2017. It would also slash permit fees by 25 percent for entrepreneurs who already paid sign fines to the city, but still need to purchase a mandatory permit required to hang any new signs larger than six square feet.
The bill’s passage followed a more than 100-percent spike in anonymous 311 complaints about the size and legality of storefronts’ signs last year — the majority of which tipsters filed against Kings County mom-and-pop shops, which netted some 1,040 of the total 1,900 complaints, according to Buildings Department rep Andrew Rudansky.
Business owners in Colton’s district — which includes Bensonhurst, Bath Beach, Gravesend, and Mapleton — were particularly hard hit, receiving 127 complaints last year, compared with only 14 in 2017.
And the city’s Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings slapped some of those entrepreneurs with financial penalties as high as $15,000 because of the complaints — fines that many store owners called disastrous for their bottom lines.
The fines are issued to property owners, not business owners who rent their commercial space, according to Rudansky, but many entrepreneurs claim their landlords force them to pay the penalties regardless of whom they are sent to.
And the city should have recognized this work-around in preparing the recently passed legislation, especially because many entrepreneurs claimed to be unfamiliar with the codes they were fined for violating in the first place, according to Colton.
“The city has put small businesses in a tough situation based on some unenforced antiquated regulation that the business owners have no knowledge of,” the pol said.
Espinal intended to include terms requiring full or partial fine reimbursement as part of the legislation he introduced last March, according to two of his staffers, who said other city officials put the kibosh on that idea because the penalties were based off a legitimate law.
That law requires signage permits to ensure placards don’t fall off and injure passersby, according to Rudansky, who said the cost for the Buildings Department–issued permits depends on the type of property and the estimated cost of the sign, with permits for illuminated signs starting at $225.
But the law mandating signage permits also requires applicants to posses city-issued sign-hanging licenses, which cost $100 and last for three years before applicants must pay an additional $75 for subsequent three-year renewals. And the license requirement leads many business owners to outsource the permit-application process to sign-hanging companies, which often tack on extra fees, according to some entrepreneurs.
One Bensonhurst business owner who last year shelled out $6,000 for a sign violation — and an additional $2,800 to a sign company that secured the permit for his 45-square-foot, illuminated sign — demanded the city return every cent he paid for his allegedly problematic placard, which he said hung outside his store for more than a decade without receiving a single complaint.
“The city should give back all the fines that they gave,” said Freddie Benz, the owner of Benz Jewelers on 86th Street between Bay 25th and Bay 26th streets. “It’s not right what they did to small-business owners, especially when they do it without warning.”
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