Welcome to New York City, where entrepreneurs say the cost of doing business often includes paying—or challenging—a confetti shower of fines from unsympathetic inspectors. While financial penalties play an important role in safeguarding the public and keeping the city presentable, business owners say some fines are levied unfairly and arbitrarily.
The deeply ingrained culture among employees who enforce city codes is emerging as one of the chief obstacles to making life easier for small businesses, one of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's main goals for his third term.
One sign of how poisonous the relationship between businesses and the agencies that regulate them has become is that few small businesses are willing to go on the record with complaints because they fear retribution.
Robert Bookman, a lawyer who represents the New York Nightlife Association, says he knows of restaurants being fined if they do not post a sign at their bar sinks saying “Employees must wash hands after using the bathroom,” even though the bar is not a bathroom. Because so much depends on an inspector's common-sense interpretation of rules, an angry inspector has the ability to wreak havoc on a small business.
The mayor and a regulatory review task force he appointed came up with a list of initiatives to change the culture, including customer-service training for inspectors and a review of all new rules.
Yet, changing the fine-first, ask-questions-later habit across a city with 280,000 employees is difficult, as even Bloomberg administration officials acknowledge.