"If red tape was nutritional, we could feed the world," quipped State Senator Brad Hoylman, to a room full of agreeable murmurs. His audience was primed to appreciate the joke: Small business owners from around Manhattan gathered at Civic Hall earlier today to air their grievances and share stories about their experiences being crippled by bureaucracy and, in an ideal world, convince their elected officials to do something about it.
"The theme that I find very interesting is we are just not spending enough time listening to the people who are actually running the businesses," Comptroller Scott Stringer, who chaired today's fifth and final such hearing, said afterward. "This has given us a really great opportunity to actually hear from people who every day get up in the morning, open up their store, and then deal with customers or business plans but obviously are being overrun by a bureaucracy that is part of their day-to-day existence."
Several such business owners took their turn at the podium to discuss their plights, which ranged from the universally reviled commercial rent tax for Manhattan businesses to food truck operators sick of getting slapped with fines wherever they park.
Joe Glaser, who runs the La Bella Torte dessert truck, called the regulations for food trucks in NYC "the worst in the country." Why not, he suggested, create a permit system that allows food trucks to rotate two or three at a time out of the city's many pedestrian plazas?
"If you gave permits for those areas, then it wouldn't interfere with the brick and mortars, and we'd be able to make a legitimate living," he said. Asked by one commission member whether his truck happened to be parked outside of the meeting location, he replied "No, I'm afraid of getting arrested!"
Street vendors also had plenty of gripes about their unfair treatment by the city. One man, represented by the advocacy group Street Vendor Project, took the mic to tell of a time he got arrested for operating his stand without a license. The judge confirmed that he didn't see a license in the paperwork—until the vendor produced it. "Then he went to the system again and checked, and he said, 'Oh actually, I found it!'"
Some complaints were not so much with the city as they were with private interests, like Con Ed. Hoylman pointed out that constituents regularly complain to him about the inexplicable difficulty of getting their electricity hooked up, often delaying their opening day for several months while they wait. "They lose money while that business isn't operating, because they're waiting for a private utility to do their jobs," he said.
Even when Con Ed does do its job, its often in a way that's irritating. Jimmy Carbone, who owns Jimmy's No. 43, said that workers for the company recently appeared unannounced to do noisy construction in front of his storefront. "It was planned construction, it wasn't an emergency, and we weren't notified," he said.
Scott J., who runs Scott J. AVEDA Salon, says that in addition to crippling taxes, the implementation of widely-lauded measures to protect employees is unfortunately taking quite the toll on his business.
"The affordable health care has been killing me—I pay between $25,000 and $50,000 a month now for that," he said. "The mandatory paid sick leave that just went by—while it's great, I have 200 employees with four locations and a call center. Mandatory paid sick leave has cost me between $5,000 and $8,000 a month."
Stringer said after the hearing that he appreciates everything he heard—but that listening is the easy part.
"Now the hard part begins. We now have taken testimony from around the city, and we're now going to have to do our due diligence and come up with some ideas that the city administration can adopt."
"We have got to become a small business friendly city," he said. "The stakes here are very high. I think we need to take a sledgehammer to the bureaucracy and say, how can we be much more forward-thinking, much more protective of this critical city asset which is our small businesses?"