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Council Pushes New Measures to Help Small Businesses Sidestep Red Tape

By Jill Colvin | October 2, 2012 4:09pm

CITY HALL — For more than 30 years, Vinnie Mazzone has been a staple of the Sheepshead Bay restaurant scene, luring hungry diners with his legendary Chicken Masters’ fried chicken.

But two weeks ago, he shuttered his doors for good — blaming what he described as stifling government regulations, including hundreds in fines for petty violations, endless hoops to jump through and crushing tax rates.

“There are so many rules and regulations,” complained Mazzone, who said he'd half-jokingly changed his title from CEO to CCO: "Chief Compliance Officer."

“It’s like I’m a government employee without the benefits. It’s not possible for me to run my business the way I’ve been doing 30 years,” he said.

In recent years, small business owners like Mazzone have expressed growing frustrations with rising fines and bureaucratic red tape that they say is making it more and more difficult to operate a business in the city. A recent report pegged New York as the fifth-worst state in the country when it comes to friendliness toward small-businesses.

But now owners are crossing their fingers that their message may finally be getting through.

On Tuesday, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and other council members joined officials from the Bloomberg administration to announce a new round of measures aimed at easing some of the biggest burdens facing small businesses.

Next week, the council will introduce legislation that will force city agencies to go through their books to identify violations that might lend themselves to first-offense warnings or grace periods where owners can correct violations before being slapped with fines. (A frequent complaint from restaurant owners is that they're fined for problems that can be fixed on the spot.)

Another measure will force agencies to go through their books to scrub obsolete regulations which can cause confusion for business already trying to make sense of pages of rules and codes.

“We’ve heard from too many businesses, ‘I just can’t take it anymore,’” said Quinn. “We are basically saying here, collectively as government, ‘We haven’t done it well enough.’”

City Councilwoman Diana Reyna, chair of the council’s small business committee, said she's heard from too many owners who say they risk going under because of city-imposed punitive fines and "archaic" rules.

“We are making it harder for new businesses to open and for current businesses to stay open profitably,” she said.

Among the regulations that could be up for debate include requirements that force businesses to post numerous, large signs throughout their stores and restaurants, said Robert Bookman, an attorney who represents the newly-formed NYC Hospitality Alliance.

Many of the posters are redundant and obsolete in an era of smart phones and 311, he said.

In terms of fines, Quinn said one she’s eyeing is a requirement that forces business owners to put their license numbers on all of their advertising, including business cards. She said rules like that can trip up owners who've never even heard of them until they're hit with fines for breaking them.

“Somebody shouldn’t have to pay [a fine] for that,” she said. “There’s no real threat to public health if it’s not on somebody’s business card.”

Quinn also outlined several other measures designed to make it easier for businesses to deal with city agencies, including streamlining the “overly complicated” process for applying for “public assembly” permits, new mandatory customer service training for all city agencies that deal with small businesses, and a requirement that those agencies designate specific point-people to interact with business owners.

The new efforts gave hope to some, including Farid Ali Lancheros, owner of the Bogota Latin Bistro, in Park Slope, Brooklyn, who said that inconsistent enforcement and sky-high fines have been a huge thorn in his side.

Most frustrating, he said, was three years ago, when he was slapped with $100 fine for putting an A-frame chalkboard sign advertising his specials outside his eatery — something he and other restaurant owners along Fifth Avenue had been doing every day for years and never knew was against the rules.

“Really, honestly?” he said of the fine, which he said soured him on working with the city.

“The process that’s involved in order to get anything done is just so challenging. It’s filled with obstructions,” he said, adding that he hopes the new efforts show the city is finally working to help things change.

“I’ve got my fingers crossed and I’m really hoping that I see something come of this," he said.