BY YVETTE BROWN
On Thursday, City Comptroller Scott Stringer, alongside the 82nd Street Partnership, local community leaders and advocates visited Jackson Heights to check out a few of the small businesses in the area and see what they are struggling with.
While in Jackson Heights, Stringer discussed many of the difficulties that small businesses face, which includes a slow approval process and poor communication from City agencies. Nearly one-third of small business owners have to wait six months or longer for approvals that they need from the City to open their business. Four in 10 have said that they had to hire private expeditors to navigate the City’s bureaucracy.
Stringer visited businesses like M to N Cafeteria and La Brasa del Pollo and Brands & Co. He spoke with business owners about the competition they face at Queens Center Mall, which is a few subway stops away, as well as keeping up with the rent and making sure that people bring issues into the store.
The owner of Brands & Co stated that his rent is $14,500 per month, so it can be hard to keep up especially when they continue to lose business on a yearly basis, while the owner of M to N Cafeteria explained that he has had his restaurant damaged a few times by the late night passersby, who are sometimes under the influence of alcohol.
“Small businesses are the backbone of our City’s economy, but too often [the] government is a barrier, not a partner, in helping them grow,” said Stringer. “When it takes months on end to get permits and half of business owners don’t feel like they get a fair shake from the City, it’s time to take a sledgehammer to the bureaucracy.”
Stringer spoke with some of the business owners about the recommendations from his Red Tape Commission report, like creating clear timelines for agency approval as well as improving services for New Yorkers who don’t speak English as fluently and making better use of technology to help support them.
The Red Tape Commission includes 31 small business leaders, regulatory experts and advocates from across the City, which is co-chaired by Jessica Lappin, president of the Alliance for Downtown New York, and Michael Lambert, executive director of the Bed-Stuy Gateway Business Improvement District. Stringer has held hearings over the last year throughout New York City as well as having conducted an online survey of 300 business owners to help understand the challenges that these small business owners face.
The online survey revealed that small businesses suffer from painfully slow approval processes. Thirty percent of small businesses surveyed said it took them six months or longer to get all the approvals they needed from the City to open for business, and 13 percent said it took more than a year.
Nearly half of all business owners who were surveyed also said that they did not feel like they had been treated fairly by City agencies and 58 percent said agencies failed to adequately communicate expectations and requirements.
When asked to grade City agencies on a scale of one to five, owners gave most agencies a grade of two. The Buildings Department, Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings, the Taxi and Limousine Commission and the Department of City Planning were the least satisfying to engage, while the Fire Department and Department of Small Business Services got the highest marks.
Nearly 40 percent of small businesses surveyed said they found it necessary to hire a private “expeditor” to navigate City bureaucracy. Expeditors are private “fixers” hired to navigate the arcane bureaucracy, principally at the Department of Buildings, but more than half of respondents said expeditors were neither helpful nor effective.
When asked to identify their single greatest frustration with City government, fines and inspections were cited by 20 percent of respondents as the most common complaint, followed by agency response times and high stakes and fees.
There was a final report including 60 recommendations that was released earlier in the week by the Commission.
Some of the recommendations include establishing clear timelines for the approval of permits and holding agencies accountable if timelines are not met, abolishing expeditors at the Department of Buildings and creating small business advocates in relevant City agencies, improving services for limited English proficient New Yorkers, helping business owners to learn how to comply with rules and regulations rather than relying on fines, making better use of technology and reforming rent tax.
“We’ve taken a ground-up look at many of the problems that have adversely impacted New York City’s small business community and directly incorporated the feedback from those who have faced these challenges into the Commission’s recommendations,” Lambert said. “These reforms can e a game changer for existing and future businesses throughout New York City.”
Reach Yvette Brown at (718)357-7400 ext. 128, firstname.lastname@example.org or @eveywrites.