Agency quota puts squeeze on local stores

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Business people in the Riverdale/Kingsbridge area say they’re not surprised by Public Advocate Bill de Blasio’s announcement that the Department of Consumer Affairs uses a quota system to encourage inspectors to issue more violations.

But, they say, the requirement to issue at least one violation for every four inspections hasn’t made for more effective enforcement.

At Doloma Convenience Store, Inc. on Broadway just south of West 231st Street, an employee said inspectors were too mired in bureaucracy to notice serious violations — such as his competitors’ sales of single cigarettes and untaxed packs. 

“We’re doing the right stuff, following the laws. But when they’re not, how am I going to pay rent?” said the employee who asked to remain anonymous because the owner wasn’t present. “They should be more vigilant.”

Just around the corner on West 231st Street, Omar Abdullah, whose family owns Broadway Candy, complained that the agency’s zealousness saddled small businesses with staggering fines.

“They’re supposed to help out, give a warning, but they don’t,” said Mr. Abdullah, noting that his bodega received four-figure fines for selling flavored tobacco because his family didn’t know it had been recently outlawed. “They just give tickets.” 

Mr. de Blasio announced last month his staff had determined Consumer Affairs flagged inspectors who fail to meet a 25 percent threshold, meaning they scrutinize staff who don’t issue at least one ticket per every four inspections. The mayoral candidate also said his office’s review of the department data and interviews with employees indicated Consumers Affairs pressured administrative judges to rule against businesses’ appeals.

“You’re talking about businesses that may survive or may collapse because of these fines; you’re talking about people who won’t get a job because so much money is going into the city’s pockets and being taken out of the small business owners’ pockets --–– real human consequences,” Mr. de Blasio said during a press conference. “It has to be stopped now and Commissioner Mintz must resign.”

Mr. de Blasio’s inquiry came months after he released a report arguing that outer borough businesses are targeted by city agencies with an increasing number of low-level fines. 

Commissioner Jonathan Mintz told CBS News that when an inspector doesn’t meet the threshold, “it’s a flag for the manager” that this individual may not know what they’re doing. But he argued this does not amount to a quota system. 

While few business owners thought inspectors had it out for their establishment, several said Consumer Affairs wasn’t proactive about helping businesses learn from their fines.

Leaders of local business associations said they didn’t think local businesses received more fines or scrutiny than their counterparts in other neighborhoods. However, Tracy Shelton, executive director of Kingsbridge-Riverdale-Van-Cortlandt Development Corporation said Marble Hill stores seem to get hit more frequently than shops in other parts of the northwest Bronx.

Manny Gonzalez, who has managed Game Depot near Broadway and West 225th Street for 15 years, said he “learned the hard way” about Consumer Affairs’ regulations. In his first year, he was slapped with a $3,000 fine for not having a license. The fee then grew $100 for every day he didn’t pay it, Mr. Gonzalez said. Now, he says he rarely gets fines when an inspector comes by about once every two months.

“It’s never going to be really smooth with the city, but it’s fine,” Mr. Gonzalez said.

Up in North Riverdale, Teodoro Romero said Consumer Affairs’ first examination of Nelson’s Barber Shop, which he and his wife opened on Riverdale Avenue near West 259th Street less than two years ago, went well. The register was not printing receipts. The inspector pointed out this wasn’t acceptable, but didn’t fine him.

“There could definitely be more outreach to businesses as to what the actual expectations are to avoid violations,” said Gary Wartels, president of the North Riverdale Merchants Association. “Through the merchant association, we’ve certainly tried to educate our members – and that’s one of the benefits of membership. I think it’s not widely known what can bring on a violation and what can’t.”

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