Flushing Away Fines

A new city policy may soon offer both small business owners—and pedestrians— some relief.

If the Mayor’s Office of Operation and city Law Department approves the proposal, the policy would give business owners the chance to have certain fees waived if their business opens its bathroom up to the public. The program is awaiting the Mayor’s Office of Operation and the city Law Department’s review and approval. 

The program will waive fees that arise from 47 different violations of city law including posting prohibited signage and failure to have information in English. These included violations come with a fee between $75 and $500. Only first-time violations will be eligible to be waived.

The plan was spearheaded by Melissa Mark-Vivierito, congressional candidate and former speaker of the City Council. In 2017, she introduced a bill that required the city to conduct a study looking into if the program could work. The Department of Consumer and Worker Protection finished the study in Jan. 2020. It concluded that some parts of the penalty mitigation program were possible.

Originally the plan also proposed offering restaurants fee forgiveness if the eatery would donate leftover food to organizations that feed those in need. The study said that this component of the program could not work for several reasons including that the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection has no experience in regulating excess food, cannot monitor the business’s compliance, and can not vet the non-profits that would receive the food.

It is anticipated that the mayor’s office will approve the restroom component of the mitigation plan soon, especially since Mayor Bill de Blasio has rolled out a series of reforms to lessen fines for small businesses. In Jan. 2020, he announced that certain first-time fines issued by the departments like the Department of Buildings, Department of Transportation and the Department of Sanitation will be waived. He says that he has cut small business fines by more than 40 percent since 2014. He plans to reduce the number by another 10 percent before he leaves office.

NY City Lens sat down with Mark-Vivierito to find out more about the penalty mitigation program.


Q: What drove you to propose the bill?

It was an issue of a lot of small businesses complaining that they were not given any room to learn. They were like ‘we are still learning about these things so give us an opportunity to learn on the first try, then you can highlight the problem and give me a chance to rectify it before I am penalized. Then, if I do it again, we can have a different conversation.’ The idea of the program is to create a bit of a lesser burden on small business owners, many of who find the landscape of surviving in the city very challenging. There are a lot of obstacles and administrative hurdles.

There is also a lack of access to restrooms in the city and that is an ongoing conversation that we have had. There really have not been any sort of public restroom measures and that does become a problem for families with children, elderly people, homeless people. So really, it meets two needs.

Q: Do you think that businesses will take the city up on this? Some seem worried that opening up a restroom and maintaining it might cost them more than the benefits they would get from fine relief.

So, it is not a mandate. It only covers violations in certain categories and the included violations are not extensive. As an opt-in program, it is like a pilot. We can figure out how it does and whether or not it’s worth expanding further. People need to understand the details before they react. Right now, it’s an opt-in. It requires establishments to apply to participate. 

Q: The part about donating excess food from restaurants to non-profits was considered not feasible. Would you agree that it would not work in this city?

No. I do not agree. I think it is feasible. I think it clearly says in the report that it is not feasible because it [The Department of Consumer and Worker Protection] has never had experience with it. So that, to me, is not convincing. That just says to me that they do not want to do it, and they don’t want to take the time to study it and figure out a way to apply it and make it feasible. The issue of food waste is a big concern. At the end of the day, we could have rescued food that can address a need in this city. Because of the challenges with poverty in the city, our food pantries cannot provide enough to supply the need. I think the City of New York has to be aggressive about figuring out how to minimize food waste and to capture that food.