City Councilmember Rafael Espinal’s bill to provide relief from the signage crisis sweeping the city has been finalized, his office said Thursday.
Espinal introduced the Awnings Act to combat onerous signage fees earlier this year, and held a rally with other councilmembers plus Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams last week after a wave of new 311 complaints in Bay Ridge, Sunset Park and Ditmas Park.
According to Espinal’s office, the new bill will:
- Establish an immediate one-year moratorium on signage violations
- Allow businesses that have received fines and not yet paid them to apply to the city to have them waived
- Allow businesses that have already paid fines to only pay 25% of any fees on permits for new signs or awnings. (Espinal’s office originally hoped to obtain at least partial refunds of already-paid fines).
- Convene an awnings task force of small business owners, borough chambers of commerce and representatives of “various agencies” to address “further and existing concerns.”
- Allow any general contractor to hang signs or awnings, instead of the 40 or so currently licensed by the city.
“Laws like this one, that have received so much support from the community and my colleagues, make me proud to serve in the City Council,” Espinal said in a press release. “It achieves unprecedented aid for small businesses that have been unfairly targeted, and represents the exact kinds of issues that a responsive Council should be resolving every day.”
PANIC OVER SIGNS
This came after weeks of panic from business owners, outrage from councilmembers, and pointed fingers about who is ultimately responsible for what appeared to be a sudden crackdown on illegal signs and awnings that had often been hanging for decades. The surged was apparently fueled by a wave of anonymous 311 complaints in recent months, to which the Department of Buildings say they are legally required to respond.
At the last week’s rally, Espinal said the City “did not do its job” to educate the public following a similar crisis in the early 2000s, singling out the DOB and Small Business Services.
(As Bklyner reported last week, the City Council, including Espinal, contributed to the expensive fines by voting to raise the civic penalty for construction work without a permit as part of a bill intended to improve safety conditions at construction sites).
Now both sides appear to be calming down.
City Councilmember Carlos Menchaca, a supporter of Espinal’s bill who has also criticized the DOB and SBS, toured his district with SBS Commissioner Gregg Bishop Wednesday.
Bishop struck a conciliatory tone in an interview with Bklyner.
“We recognize that there was an issue with some of the policies and regulations, as well as even with some of the fine schedules that the Council voted on,” Bishop said, adding his department had been working with Espinal on his bill for a year.
When asked about the widespread frustration in the community, Bishop was sympathetic.
“I think they had every right to be upset,” he said. “I think this bill really captures a lot of concerns that the business community had.”
The DOB also told Bklyner they supported Espinal’s bill.
“We thank Councilmember Espinal and the other sponsors of this bill for working with us on this effort to reform the rules on storefront signs, striking a balance between the concerns of small business owners and the paramount importance of keeping our sidewalks safe,” the Department said in a statement.
James Mauceri, a Queens-based licensed sign hanger who has been in the business for 46 years, has been monitoring and cataloguing the recent wave of complaints and violations. He expressed support for the bill, but took issue with a couple provisions, especially the one allowing any contractor to hang signs.
“There’s a reason I was tested for my license,” Mauceri said. “Because it’s dangerous.”
Mauceri stressed that general contractors simply have to apply for a license, while sign hangers get tested on their competence.
Mauceri said it was important this provision be addressed before the bill is voted on, comparing it to allowing people to hook up their own boilers.
“That’s a definite safety issue,” he said. “What’s going to happen when the first [sign] falls? There’s going to be a major lawsuit.”
Mauceri also said the discount for future permits will not come close to recouping what some businesses have already paid in fines, and said he always felt it was unlikely they would happen, despite Espinal bringing them up at the December 5 rally.
Finally, he suggested “a more user friendly and less complex procedure” to file a sign or awning permit as the best way to make sure illegal signs were not hung, pointing out business owners needed to hire as many as 5 different licensed professionals to hang one sign.
“Often the permit costs exceed the cost of the sign itself!” he wrote in an email.
Espinal’s office said they had hoped to find a way to make refunds happen, and kept talking about them publicly in hopes of getting the office of Mayor Bill de Blasio to budge during negotiations.
“Unfortunately we learned quite early on in this legislative process that there was no legal way for us to issue refunds without them qualifying as a ‘gift’ from the government to a private entity,” said Caitlin Kelmar, Espinal’s legislative director. “We will work with SBS and local nonprofits to create budget items that address the burdens that these businesses have had to face, in order to give them financial assistance that would not qualify as a ‘gift.'”
Kelmar also dismissed Mauceri’s concerns about letting general contractors hang signs.
“I would understand that a licensed sign hanger would have reservations about this bill, as it will increase competition,” she said in an email, adding that many signs and awnings currently hung were by unlicensed contractors and had not yet posed a danger.
“These contractors will still have to follow all the requirements and measures set by DOB that the licensed contractors are held to. All the existing safety regulations will be maintained,” she said.
Mauceri has repeatedly stressed to Bklyner that his company, which works mostly for large corporate clients, does not have any financial stake in the signage crisis, and his focus on the issue comes strictly from concern for his community.
Councilmember Menchaca encouraged his constituents not to pay any outstanding fines and vowed to keep working on the issue.
“Under the provisions of the bill, if you pay the fine, there’s no mechanism to reimburse, but if you don’t pay, the moratorium will give you time to cure the violation without paying the fine,” Menchaca said in a statement. “We are going to continue working on future legislation to help businesses who have already paid, and also work to make sure that after the moratorium, this doesn’t happen again.”
Espinal’s office said they expected a December 20 vote on the bill.
We have reached out to de Blasio’s office and will add their response when and if we hear back.