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Policing placards: Bensonhurst civic leaders call for investigation into complaints against small businesses’ signs

Nothing to see here: Benz Jewelers owner Freddie Benz paid a $6,000 fine and purchased a new sign after an anonymous caller reported his business — and dozens of others in the area — to the city for having placards without a permit.
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The city must investigate a recent rash of complaints alleging that Bensonhurst business owners lack permits for their storefronts’ signage, according to local civic leaders, who said the uptick in such allegations already cost mom-and-pop shopkeepers thousands of dollars in fines.

A probe of the reports filed with the city’s 311 hotline is necessary to ensure greedy agents are not cashing in at the small-business owners’ expense, according to the district manager of Community Board 11.

“They really need to look and make sure that whoever is calling in these sign complaints is not benefitting from a personal gain,” said Marnee Elias-Pavia.

This year, the 311 hotline received some 127 complaints about signs and awnings belonging to businesses within the board’s district, which also includes Bath Beach, Gravesend, and Mapleton — a whopping 113 more than it received about storefronts in the same area last year, according to a letter Elias-Pavia fired off on Dec. 19 to the Mayor’s Office of Operations, which oversees the hotline run by the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications.

The missive came days after the civic panel voted to pass a resolution demanding the mayoral office “ensure that complaints were not generated for financial gain or theft of government services” at its Dec. 13 general meeting.

The city in 1968 instituted the law requiring a permit to install signs larger than six square feet, to ensure that placards don’t fall off and injure passersby, Department of Buildings spokesman Andrew Rudansky said.

Fines for installing a sign without a permit can start at $6,000 and can rise up to $15,000, and city inspectors issue them to property owners, not shopkeepers who run businesses targeted in the complaints, according to Rudansky.

But many business owners claim their landlords force them to pay the fines regardless of whom they are issued to.

For instance, the owner of a Bensonhurst jewelry store said his landlord shocked him when he handed the entrepreneur a $6,000 bill for a fine dealt in response to a May 25 complaint about his sign — especially because the placard hung outside his store for more than a decade without anyone making a peep, he said.

“After 15 years, you decide to come now and issue this?” said Freddie Benz, the owner of Benz Jewelers on 86th Street between Bay 25th and Bay 26th streets, who said he had to shell out money for a new sign in addition to footing the bill for the violation.

A spokesman for the city’s Technology Department did not specifically respond to questions about whether or not the agency will investigate the 311 complaints in the wake of CB11’s letter, instead saying hotline operators forward allegations to the appropriate city agencies, and that some — including the Buildings Department — accept anonymous complaints.

That agency allows tipsters to conceal their identities so that complainants can freely report building-related concerns without fear of reprisal from their landlords, Rudansky said.

But Buildings Department bigwigs should remove the cloak of anonymity in this instance, because callers logging the sign complaints appear to be organized, according to Elias-Pavia, who said city data shows that some tipsters reported multiple allegations — often about neighboring businesses — on the days they called, such as on April 24, when folks filed 11 complaints about businesses on 18th Avenue and 86th Street.

Plus, the callers likely searched for each business individually on the Buildings Department’s website to find out if any had permits for signs — an effort Elias-Pavia alleged they probably would not have made unless there was something to gain from filing the complaints.

And Brooklyn isn’t the only borough that received an uptick in complaints about businesses’ signage — the number of such allegations citywide spiked by more than 100 percent this year, according to Rudansky, who said Kings County received the lion’s share, netting 1,046 of a total 1,890.

The Buildings Department is required by law to respond to all 311 complaints, but it does not employ staffers dedicated to inspecting storefronts’ placards, and inspectors only investigate allegations of illegal signage while conducting unrelated visits in neighborhoods where complaints were filed, Rudansky said.

Reach reporter Julianne McShane at (718) 260–2523 or by e-mail at jmcshane@cnglocal.com. Follow her on Twitter @juliannemcshane.
Posted 12:00 am, December 28, 2018
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Reasonable discourse

Matt from Stuyvesant Heights says:
I’ve noticed a lot of bodegas here in Bed Stuy have been removing their awnings, this is probably why. Underneath those hideous awnings are often the original signage from the 40s and 50s plus you now get to see the beautiful architectural details that have been hidden for decades. Those awnings should all be banned as they are ugly and cheapen the neighborhood.
Dec. 28, 2018, 8:01 am
Rufus Leaking from BH says:
Don't kid yourself it's about REVENUE! Fines of $6,000 according to the NY Times. All because something "might" fall down. The city sees no evil in spray painted tags all over, but no awnings - time to make the avenues look like a refuge camp. And why did these awnings come about? To cover the riot shutters and roll down gates that these small businesses had to install to save their livelihoods.
Dec. 28, 2018, 8:26 am
Rufus Leaking from BH says:
Signs that withstood Superstorm Sandy, and many a winter. GimmeGimmeGimme - we want any money you might have left after sales tax, and outrageous property tax.
Dec. 28, 2018, 8:29 am
Joe Bloe from Bensonhurst says:
Here is some revelations: 1) NY City Buildings Dept. does not asses the fines for violations, that is done by the City Council. 2) Building dept. does not impose "cloak of anonymity" as the complaints come from 311. They are most likely from the community boards themselves all over the city. Take a look at Bensonhurst, now predominately Chinese, city data shows that in the last few years 311 complaints for this area have exploded. where do you suppose the complaints are coming from ? Check the bigoted Community Boards through out this city.
Dec. 28, 2018, 9:20 am
Frank from Flushing says:
"I have been breaking the law for the past 15 years and now you come around..." Yeah, what nerve of the city to give YOU a fine. I did not realize that the longer you break the law the more entitled you become.
Dec. 28, 2018, 9:45 am
Rufus Leaking from BH says:
Then fine them like a parking ticket Frank. Not 6 grand. This is nothing more than a shakedown. Hey, who is selling the replacement signs?
Dec. 28, 2018, 1:16 pm
JAKE from QUEENS says:
I used to be a sign hanger. Im sure the sign company told store/property owner they filed & got the correct permit but never did then pocketed the $$. Whose fault is that? The store/property owner for not checking the permit they paid for. BOTTOM LINE: CHECK PERMITS YOURSELF & COMPLY TO CODE OR PAY
Dec. 28, 2018, 2:02 pm
Rufus Leaking from BH says:
Jake, you want them to find what isn't there? Good luck asking the city - they cant find what is there.
Dec. 28, 2018, 3:09 pm
Frank from Flushing says:
Most probably the fines were increased by the City Council in response to public pressure. It's common practice for the city to up the fines in an effort to discourage illegal activity. Obviously that mentality does not work, and yes it is a form of shakedown for the small business owner and private homeowners but that's what happens when you break the law. No excuse.
Dec. 28, 2018, 3:23 pm
Rufus Leaking from BH says:
The city council is just making way for more banks and chain stores.
Dec. 28, 2018, 4:36 pm
Adamben from The stuy says:
Break the law, pay the fine. We’ll all be greatful come the next windy day.
Dec. 28, 2018, 5:46 pm
Henry Ford from Bay Ridge says:
It’s probably the same cranks that doxx people that are parked 14 feet from a hydrant online that are trying to put all the local businesses six feet under.
Dec. 28, 2018, 6:22 pm
Brooklyn from Park Slope says:
NYC Small Business Services is a terrible on so many levels. How the current Commissioner has not been fired yet is amazing, but I gather Deblasio is sleeping in the SUV on the way to the gym and not looking out the window to see all the empty store fronts, and seeing first hand how the local small businesses get screwed, and no advocacy at all by city hall to help the small businesses out.
Dec. 28, 2018, 7:51 pm
Rufus Leaking from BH says:
Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. - C.S. Lewis
Dec. 29, 2018, 12:38 pm
II from CH says:
Anyway most signs are ugly. The city should apply uniform standards for each block/ area.
Dec. 29, 2018, 8:42 pm
Mustfa Khant from Atlantic ave says:
Good plan comrade, let the city decide.
Dec. 29, 2018, 11:20 pm
Rufus Leaking from BH says:
Tell them you are a Dreamer, or member of the sanctuary state, and they will let you off with no fine.
Dec. 31, 2018, 11:52 am
LK from Fort Greene says:
Merchants pay the BIDs who should be helping the merchants but they are silent as some profiteers are targeting businesses mostly owned by immigrants. Where is the local City Council member checking out what happens to the merchants in the district and intervening on their behalf? This is not about safety.
Jan. 7, 10:08 am
Sal from Crown Heights says:
Matt from Stuy Heights, You're the kind of who moves to Brooklyn and brings your precious sense of beauty with you. You actually think a bodega owner should have to pay rent on a property with a sign from the 40s for an extinct business. Why don't you go back to Greenwich where you are surrounded by good taste?
Jan. 7, 12:34 pm

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