Since the highest fines against street vendors quadrupled to $1000 in 2006, the street meat set has been pummeled with tickets which should be making the City millions. In 2008 and 2009, for instance, the city issued $15.8 million in fines against vendors. Issued being the key word. In the end it only collected roughly $900,000 [PDF]. So now Mayor Bloomberg wants to set up a special lawyer squad to
break some knee caps collect.
Advocates for the vendors have for some time been saying that the nonpayment has nothing to do with criminality and everything to do with the fact that vendors simply "can't afford them." But the Bloomberg administration isn't interested, it seems. Instead its budget for the city earmarks $580,000 for a seven-person team of lawyers to track down delinquents and make them pay. The squad is expected to at least recoup its operating costs in the process.
"The Health Department is committed to collecting fines owed by mobile food vendor permitees who repeatedly flout the law and avoid penalties by changing their business names and leasing their carts illegally," Health Department spokesman Sam Miller explains. "A new unit of lawyers will increase collections from permitees to protect public health."
But don't expect this to be that easy. The Urban Justice Center's Street Vendors Project has been actively trying to get City Council Speaker (and mayoral hopeful) Christine Quinn to allow the council to vote on bills which would lessen the fines (perhaps you've seen the signs?). They seem to be taking this latest lemon of a mayoral move and making lemonade—since nothing brings attention to an issue during an election season like wasted money. They say:
"The City can hire all the inspectors it wants, but the fact remains that street vendors aren’t paying fines because they can’t afford them," the Project said in a statement. "The city routinely charges vendors $1,000 for small infractions, the vast majority of which are not related to health or safety—the $1,000 violations are as minor as having their vending licenses in their pocket and not around their neck, or having a cart an inch too close to the curb. Instead of paying for a new group of health inspectors to shake down the city’s hard-working vendors, the City should institute a more sensible fine structure with lower fines and rules that make sense. The Street Vendor Project would be happy to work with the City to do so."
Considering some of the absurd ways that we've seen the NYPD go after vendors (tape measures, anyone?), and how little vendors who aren't in front of the Met make, it really does seem like the city might be better off making the fines more reasonable and siccing their attack attorneys on people a little better able to defend themselves.