Support Small Business: Election Time Serenade

With the next election cycle just around the corner it is no surprise that those elected officials hoping to rise into positions of greater authority are coming out strong on behalf of small business. But, as Machiavelli once observed about politicians, it is better to appear good than to be good-and the election promises too often fade once power is attained.

First out of the box was Bill de Blasio who went after the data on all of the exorbitant fines that the city metes out to hapless retailers:

“ City Public Advocate Bill De Blasio sued Mayor for information on fines, saying complaints by small-business owners show the city is seeking to boost revenue by increasing enforcement of regulations.

De Blasio said in a petition filed in New York State Supreme Court in today that since he took office two years ago small-business owners throughout the city have complained of “overzealous enforcement of regulations and imposition of fines and violations for low-risk, first-time offenses.”

Not to be outdone, Speaker Quinn chimed in yesterday with her own initiative. As the NY Post reports:

“Small businesses that complain of being besieged by city fines for obscure rules and regulations may soon get a reprieve. The City Council announced yesterday it is examining outdated and onerous laws and will recommend that the Bloomberg administration modify them or remove them from the books altogether.”

We have been commenting on the city’s regulatory assault on small business for some time, and it strikes us that booth of these approaches, while well meaning, our purely palliative-and fall far short of the radical restructuring that is needed. It is, however, the Quinn initiative that concerns us the most-and that is because of who she had at her press conference yesterday: Small Business Commissioner Rob Walsh.

Anyone who is serious about addressing the small business antipathy that animates city government cannot include Walsh as a supporter and partisan of their effort. In fact Walsh was a key factor in the eviction of the small wholesalers in the Bronx Terminal Market, and was the man who threatened the Fifth Avenue BID with a loss of funding when its merchants wanted to fight the Ikea in Red Hook.

As small business advocate Steve Null has pointed out:

“The small business community anticipated that Bloomberg’s first change would be to appoint a small business owner as Commissioner of Small Businesses. The best choice would be a Hispanic business person with no ties to the real estate industry. This would be a major change in policy because previous policy makers were closely tied to the real estate industry, and none had ever owned a small business. A Hispanic Commissioner would be justified because Hispanics owned between 42 and 45% of all the city’s small businesses.

To the disappointment of the city’s desperate small business owners, Bloomberg appointed Robert Walsh Commissioner of Small Businesses. Walsh had never owned or operated a small business. He was in North Carolina at the time of his selection, managing the Charlotte Center City Partners, a property owners/banks organization promoting a business district in that city. His background included working for the property owners as director of a Business Improvement District, the Union Square Partnership, in New York City. Walsh’s selection would create the worst anti-small business environment of any city in the nation.”

Quinn’s inclusion of Walsh-or anyone from the mayor’s administration-is a clear signal that this initiative is not going to be as comprehensive and far reaching as it needs to be. For real change to occur the Rob Walshes need to be rooted out not made partners in the reform effort. But that’s exactly what the speaker has done-even giving Walsh an honorarium in her press release:

“I would like to thank the Mayor and Speaker Quinn for their tireless support of small businesses,” said Commissioner of the NYC Department of Small Business Services Rob Walsh. “These new measures will help ensure that businesses are not subject to unnecessary fines or outdated rules. They minimize the red tape and emphasize customer service for City inspectors, both essential steps in strengthening New York City’s business-friendly environment.”

What the speaker-and to some extent de Blasio as well, don’t realize is that the plight of small business in NYC is a sever one-and when facing a crisis small measures are not the answer no matter how well meaning they appear. Many years ago the political scientist Murray Edelman drew the distinction between symbolic and tangible rewards-and the speaker’s meager but seemingly supportive efforts fall into the symbolic category.

The first step anyone looking for the support of small business needs to do-and where were the Koreans and the Hispanic bodega and supermarket owners at the Quinn presser?-is to assure the beleaguered group that Rob Walsh will have no place in their administration-and that the next small business commissioner will come from the ranks.

What a small business friendly aspirant needs to understand is that the city’s regulatory approach needs to be radically restructured-and not tinkered around with at the margins. We need to have a pledge to drastically reduce the regulatory apparatus that adds more inspectors each year to feed the cash cow being slaughtered on every commercial strip. We need a pledge to reduce the levels of fines back to the year 2000 level.

Finally, we need the next mayor to drastically reduce the cost of doing business by radically reducing real estate and other taxes that get in the way of business development in the neighborhoods. A reform of the municipal code is badly needed but that needs to be only one part of an overall plan to get government out of the way of entrepreneurship-and if the speaker is serious she needs to back far away from the mayor’s health policies, the elephant in the room that was ignored at her press conference yesterday.

What this all says is that the small business community needs to aggressively organize on its own behalf-and not attach itself too closely to any one elected official in such a way that impedes its ability to be forceful advocates for the rights of the city’s 200,000 mom and pop businesses.

We understand why some folks felt it necessary to join the speaker yesterday but in order to promote real change a certain distance needs to be maintained. The crisis facing the small business community is too severe to allow for its advocates to append themselves too closely to the ambitions of electioneering politicians. We need to make the politicians fear us and force them to come to us on our terms, not theirs.


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