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Policing placards: Bensonhurst civic leaders call for investigation into complaints against small businesses’ signs

Nothing to see here: Benz Jewelers owner Freddie Benz paid a $6,000 fine and purchased a new sign after an anonymous caller reported his business — and dozens of others in the area — to the city for having placards without a permit.
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The city must investigate a recent rash of complaints alleging that Bensonhurst business owners lack permits for their storefronts’ signage, according to local civic leaders, who said the uptick in such allegations already cost mom-and-pop shopkeepers thousands of dollars in fines.

A probe of the reports filed with the city’s 311 hotline is necessary to ensure greedy agents are not cashing in at the small-business owners’ expense, according to the district manager of Community Board 11.

“They really need to look and make sure that whoever is calling in these sign complaints is not benefitting from a personal gain,” said Marnee Elias-Pavia.

This year, the 311 hotline received some 127 complaints about signs and awnings belonging to businesses within the board’s district, which also includes Bath Beach, Gravesend, and Mapleton — a whopping 113 more than it received about storefronts in the same area last year, according to a letter Elias-Pavia fired off on Dec. 19 to the Mayor’s Office of Operations, which oversees the hotline run by the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications.

The missive came days after the civic panel voted to pass a resolution demanding the mayoral office “ensure that complaints were not generated for financial gain or theft of government services” at its Dec. 13 general meeting.

The city in 1968 instituted the law requiring a permit to install signs larger than six square feet, to ensure that placards don’t fall off and injure passersby, Department of Buildings spokesman Andrew Rudansky said.

Fines for installing a sign without a permit can start at $6,000 and can rise up to $15,000, and city inspectors issue them to property owners, not shopkeepers who run businesses targeted in the complaints, according to Rudansky.

But many business owners claim their landlords force them to pay the fines regardless of whom they are issued to.

For instance, the owner of a Bensonhurst jewelry store said his landlord shocked him when he handed the entrepreneur a $6,000 bill for a fine dealt in response to a May 25 complaint about his sign — especially because the placard hung outside his store for more than a decade without anyone making a peep, he said.

“After 15 years, you decide to come now and issue this?” said Freddie Benz, the owner of Benz Jewelers on 86th Street between Bay 25th and Bay 26th streets, who said he had to shell out money for a new sign in addition to footing the bill for the violation.

A spokesman for the city’s Technology Department did not specifically respond to questions about whether or not the agency will investigate the 311 complaints in the wake of CB11’s letter, instead saying hotline operators forward allegations to the appropriate city agencies, and that some — including the Buildings Department — accept anonymous complaints.

That agency allows tipsters to conceal their identities so that complainants can freely report building-related concerns without fear of reprisal from their landlords, Rudansky said.

But Buildings Department bigwigs should remove the cloak of anonymity in this instance, because callers logging the sign complaints appear to be organized, according to Elias-Pavia, who said city data shows that some tipsters reported multiple allegations — often about neighboring businesses — on the days they called, such as on April 24, when folks filed 11 complaints about businesses on 18th Avenue and 86th Street.

Plus, the callers likely searched for each business individually on the Buildings Department’s website to find out if any had permits for signs — an effort Elias-Pavia alleged they probably would not have made unless there was something to gain from filing the complaints.

And Brooklyn isn’t the only borough that received an uptick in complaints about businesses’ signage — the number of such allegations citywide spiked by more than 100 percent this year, according to Rudansky, who said Kings County received the lion’s share, netting 1,046 of a total 1,890.

The Buildings Department is required by law to respond to all 311 complaints, but it does not employ staffers dedicated to inspecting storefronts’ placards, and inspectors only investigate allegations of illegal signage while conducting unrelated visits in neighborhoods where complaints were filed, Rudansky said.

Reach reporter Julianne McShane at (718) 260–2523 or by e-mail at jmcshane@cnglocal.com. Follow her on Twitter @juliannemcshane.
Posted 12:00 am, December 28, 2018
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Reader feedback

Jack from Brooklyn says:
So they put illegal signage and got cought and are complaining? They knew what they were doing.
Dec. 28, 2018, 2:19 am
Jeronimo says:
More harassment of small businesses. Pretty soon all you will have is banks, Mcdonalds and chipotle. If anything, we need to give small businesses some breathing room. If they are doing something wrong, give them time to correct things. Small business employs more people than any other kind of business. Large corporations get all the breaks while the mom and pops get harassed left and right.
Dec. 28, 2018, 8:21 am
Vasant from Kings County says:
Most 'Small Businesses' often don't pay taxes on all sales (keep to sales books), higher underpaid workers, cheat with price gouging to senior edults/uneducated/non English speaking clients/customers. They suck blood of workers as they need job to pay bills & can't complain.
Dec. 28, 2018, 3:30 pm
Yelena from Brighton Beach says:
Small business owners, especially immigrants, have no clue about various rules and regulations. Many are being tricked by unlicensed companies that offer placement of signs. Also, law is 50 years old and it is time for looking into it and make changes. It is clear that most of phone calls made to 311 came from companies or individuals that would benefit from it. City must stop this nonsense, have moratorium until law is revised and start educating business owners.
Dec. 28, 2018, 8:11 pm
Jeronimo says:
When is General Electric going to pay their taxes? When is Walmart going to stop accepting corporate welfare? It is always the little guy who gets harassed by government entities. Btw, many of these be corporations in Manhattan use labor from second and third parties to avoid paying benefits to workers. The worker winds up getting minimum wage while the agencies collect the moolah.
Dec. 29, 2018, 5:03 am
Jeronimo says:
Diners across the city and in Brooklyn closed down in part due to heavy fines. Replaced with condos and other big development.
Dec. 29, 2018, 5:05 am
who cares from Brooklyn says:
I suspect this could be a way to push smaller bushiness out for new ones. Article seems organized and that means they have something to gain for this. Worth looking into imo
Jan. 1, 11:35 am

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