Unable to raise taxes publicly, the Bloomberg administration is pursuing a “stealth tax” — launching an unprecedented squeeze on Big Apple residents and businesses, cracking down on parking, health, safety and quality-of-life infractions with a vengeance.
The ongoing blitz has worked so well that City Hall bean counters expect to rake in a record $884 million in fines by the end of this fiscal year.
That’s a 10% jump over last year’s $802 million.
And there’s no letting up. Fines are projected to increase to $896 million in 2011.
“We need to get the revenue from somewhere,” said a City Hall source. “We could just tax people and take it out of your wallet or we can be aggressive in enforcement.”
But what’s good for the city’s bottom line is misery for the Average Joe, who’s being tagged with more tickets for offenses such as parking at an expired meter, improperly sorting trash and putting up illegal stoop-sale posters.
Business owners are getting hit even harder, thanks to aggressive new enforcement from health and building inspectors.
If you run a bistro or bar, watch your back. The Health Department issued 34,039 restaurant violations in 2009, up from 25,745 in 2008, and it’s on pace to bank $38 million in fines this year after getting $31 million in both 2009 and 2008.
The Buildings Department nearly doubled the dollar-value of tickets it gave out in 2009, issuing $161 million in fines during the fiscal year, up from $86 million in 2008.
Despite the flurry of summonses, it didn’t increase its haul by much. The department pocketed $28 million in 2009 and $27 million in 2008.
Cabbies might feel like they’ve been rear-ended. The Taxi and Limousine Commission is poised to raise $8.3 million this year — a whopping 76% increase over the $4.7 million it collected in 2009.
Some of the extra cash comes from fine hikes, including the Department of Environmental Protection’s penalty for illegal fire hydrant use, which went up from $500 to $750.
Hordes of ticket fighters pack hearing rooms across the city, pleading to have violations dismissed or fines reduced. Some say they’ve been rapped for petty or made-up offenses.
“I’ve been in business for 10 years and this is the first time I feel the city is looking for ways to make money,” said Johnny Koljenovic, owner of Locale, an upscale Italian eatery in Long Island City, as he waited to contest nine violations for $2,500 at a Health Department tribunal.
An inspector ticketed his chef Jesse Davis for not wearing a hat — even though Davis, who trained at the French Culinary Institute, is bald.
“It’s for stopping hair from falling into the food, but my chef has no hair whatsoever,” said the restaurateur. “The inspector said he should still have a hat, which I found completely absurd.”
Locale also was summoned for a type of flytrap that a department hearing officer recommended two years ago when Koljenovic was at the tribunal fighting an earlier stack of tickets.
“I’m a cleaning fanatic,” he said. “I support the department. But this is ridiculous. Each inspector has their own idea about violations. If I have to keep paying nonsense fines, how am I going to survive?”
The department’s response? The hat is also required to stop cooks from touching their heads, and Locale’s fly summons was because its trap was in a food-storage area.
Chaos reigns in the rooms and hallways of the Buildings Department headquarters in Manhattan, where homeowners and businesses battle fines that can reach $10,000 apiece.
Jeff Mongal, an expediter at JRS Construction with four years in the ticket-fighting trenches, said business has never been better.
The most unfair summons he’s seen was issued a month ago after his company was hired to put up a sign at a fast-food restaurant, Mongal said.
“We had all the permits. The sign hanger had to leave to attend to another job a couple of blocks away and said he’d be back in a few minutes. That’s when the inspector showed up.”
The result? A $2,000 ticket for putting up a sign without a licensed installer.
“We weren’t installing it,” Mongal said. “The sign was still in the truck.”
Parking tickets, which raise more for the city than all other fines combined, also are busting out big.
They’re on pace to reach an eye-popping $610 million this fiscal year, up from $560 million last year, a 9% increase.
The city’s Independent Budget Office predicted the mounting wave of fines in a 2003 study, but found most violations cost more to issue and collect than they raised.
The report warned that “the push for more fine revenue appears to be under way.”
“The city’s fiscal situation has led many to look to fine revenue as a potential source of help in filling the city’s budget gap,” the report scolded. “[But] the purpose of enforcement programs is not revenue generation.”
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