2013-05-22 / Features

Chamber To City: ‘Support Small Business’

BY THOMAS COGAN

It was another Chamber of Commerce meeting covering the topic of small business when the Long Island City/Astoria Chamber met in May for its meeting.

Most meetings focus on the survival of small businesses and the evening’s gathering discussed how small business in New York is at a point where its welfare is a critical issue. At the Sunnyside Chamber meeting two days earlier, Robert Walsh, head of Small Business Services for nearly 12 years, said that city agencies such as his should be more supportive of small business and less inclined to intimidate it in their role as regulatory police. That feeling is in the air, and manifested itself late last month with the passage by the City Council and signing by Mayor Michael Bloomberg of Local Laws 33, 34, 35 and 36, which, among other things, aim at giving small businesses a “cure period” where they can correct code violations rather than be immediately penalized with fines.

At the LIC Chamber meeting, Councilmember Diana Reyna was in agreement, saying the city “should be educating small business owners, not fining them”. She also said the council and the rest of city government need a lot of information on how better to deal with small business.

The myriad businesses have their own particular problems vis-à-vis the city and Reyna said the council would like a refined informational report by December, to leave for the next legislative and administrative generation, which will be almost entirely new as 2014 begins. It is there that the LIC Chamber is offering to help. An attorney and consultant, Todd Kulkin, described a five-part plan that would mine and refine information from businesses all over the city, employing teams of inquirers, and present a lengthy and detailed report to the city council that it might further develop before its December deadline. The chamber team’s deadline would be mid-July— necessitating a quick schedule that struck some people at the meeting as impossible but invigorated others. A final feature of the May meeting was the introduction of the Caribbean-American Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CACCI) President Roy Hastick.

Reyna said her father has been a livery driver who was able to acquaint her with ways the city would harry him with regulations and fines for not fulfilling their demands. She said that regulations are often so rigid that, for instance, newsstand owners are not able to sell any item costing more than five dollars. Klea Theoharis, who lives in Astoria and is in business in Manhattan, told Reyna that a lawyer told her 70 percent of violations specified in code are designed to fail, trapping those subject to them into paying fines to keep a lucrative revenue stream flowing for the city. Chamber President Arthur Rosenfield had a not-uncommon tale of a business owner who has been paying fines for five years on a formerly faulty boiler while being unable to get an inspector to come see the repair and liberate him from that constant penalty. One horror story after another could have been told, but the meeting was more about gathering information for the city council so a report could be assembled before the end of the year. That was where another guest of the day made his appearance.

Todd Kulkin is an attorney in White Plains whose slogan is “Intelligent Legal Solutions for the Business Community”. He said that griping offers a temporary release from discontent but it’s better to work for a resolution that offers freedom from it. The task for the immediate future is to educate the city council and give them tools for commonsense solutions they could put into their report. An example of that would be the restaurant grading system developed in recent years. It’s quite imperfect, Kulkin said, but it represents a step forward. He specified five activities that had to be completed in the next eight weeks: (1) creation of a survey, (2) data gathering, (3) research, (4) solution development and (5) completion and delivery of the fruits of such labor to the city council.

First, creation of a survey would entail use of multiple platforms, asking non-inflammatory questions, establishing a strong response rate and harvesting statistically significant results. Second, data gathering would need on-theground teams, collection of anecdotes, an online platform as a supplement and anonymity of respondents for their protection. Third, research would need the support of a legal team to find relevant regulations and summaries of problem areas based on legal research and data entry. Fourth, development of solutions would address problem areas and contradictory situations with remedial suggestions aimed at solving them. Fifth, completion of work and delivery to the city council would mean compiling solutions in the form of proposals and would include video supplements and requests for the council’s permissions regarding testimony.

Kulkin said it would be a tough two months of work, beginning the following day, but he had several aides at hand and was looking for others. John Dallaire, chamber treasurer, didn’t believe he could be successful, given the circumstances, but wished him luck. But Adam Walsh, a visitor to the meeting from QSAC, or Quality Services for the Autism Community, said that if Kulkin had good resources to begin the project, he could put boots on the ground for it. Rosenfield said there must be troops of LaGuardia Community College students eager to participate in a project like this one. Kulkin said that despite the difficult prospect, he could see from the reaction he was getting that the project was viable.

Hastick is not only head of CACCI but is also its founder, having started it in Brooklyn in 1985. He began with 10 members and now has 1,600. Rosenfield said he found Hastick to be an excellent model for organizing a Chamber of Commerce and looked forward to the relationship both organizations will have.

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