CHINATOWN — Chinatown property owners and residents are fuming about an alleged bureaucratic breakdown over the controversial new Chinatown Business Improvement District that they claim has stuck some of them with several thousand dollars in unexpected fees.
The city's Department of Finance recently shipped out a tax bill to Chinatown property owners that included a hefty BID fee for fiscal year 2011-'12 based on property values for each building.
The BID said it levied fees to members for coordinating trash cleanup, signs, decorations and other amenities for a period starting Oct. 1, 2011, and ending in June 2012.
The BID, however, wasn't officially approved by the state Comptroller's office until late January — almost four months after the City Council and Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed it into law, according to records.
"We are being charged for a period of time before the BID was even founded," said Jan Lee, a BID opponent who owns two buildings on Mott Street and said he was charged more than $2,200. "We want to know where our money is going."
Wellington Chen, executive director of BID creator the Chinatown Partnership, defended its decision to charge members for work done before the BID's official start date, saying they began providing services to the neighborhood the minute the city signed off on the plan.
To cover the cost of these services, the BID voted earlier this year to charge property owners retroactively to Oct. 1, Chen said.
The Department of Finance, which sent out the tax bill, referred questions to the Department of Small Business Services, which administers BID programs. The Department of Small Business Services said the BID was allowed to begin billing property owners in October because the mayor and City Council had already signed off on it, even though the state comptroller had not.
But the Asian American Legal Defense Fund, which represents the angry property owners, said it will sue unless the city rolls back the excess charges.
"For small property owners, who are already responsible for many fees, this additional, unlawful charge for hundreds or thousands of dollars adds up," said Bethany Li, staff attorney with AALDEF.
The BID tax varies based on the size and value of the property, ranging from $200 to $5,000 a year. The first bill is due April 1.
John Casalinuovo, 60, who said he just got a bill for more than $2,400 for the 116 Mott St. building his family has owned since 1937, called the bill "too typical of the way the city operates."
"We're crippled," Casalinuovo said. "It's absolutely ridiculous. I should be getting a tax break — not an increase in taxes."