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June 2, 2003
Urban PolicyNYCOther

Sometimes it's the little things that drive you over the edge.

In Gotham's last recession, from 1989 through 1992, the city and state raised taxes by billions of dollars. But what most seemed to enrage residents and business owners, especially small business owners, were the fines and fee increases heaped on top of those taxes.

To help close Gotham's budget gap back then, Dinkins administration agencies embarked on an aggressive policy of fining firms and residents. Officious inspectors oppressively ticketed thousands of retailers for sanitation violations, for example—sometimes for something as trivial as a piece of paper blown by the wind onto the sidewalk in front of their shop.

The "nuisance fees," as the fines were called, resulted in big bucks: Fines collected by the city soared 39 percent, from $287 million in 1989 to $398 million by fiscal 1992.

But these nuisance fees, often parceled out indiscriminately, also sparked anger and contempt toward the administration and the city's enforcement agencies.

Now the city is again resorting to higher fines and more tickets to help close its budget gap. The city projects that revenues from violations will rise to $662 million next fiscal year, up by $205 million—or 45 percent—in just two years. (By contrast, ticketing revenues grew just $20 million, or 5 percent, over the prior four years.)

Much of the extra revenue will come from parking tickets, which, according to a recent study by the city's Independent Budget Office, seem to offer the best return on "investment": They cost the city just 22 cents to administer for every $1 in parking fines it hands out. (But fines for everything else—from housing-code violations to improper bagging of garbage—ost the city more than the revenue they bring in.)

To take advantage of that neat spread, the Bloomberg administration is even hiring 300 new traffic-enforcement officers.

This is no minor irritation. Earlier this year Crain's New York Business reported that one small city courier service expects to pay $15,000 more in parking fines this year because of the city's aggressive new policy. That's on top of tax hikes and higher parking fees.

The projected revenue bonanza is yet another sign of an administration hell-bent on raising revenues by any means possible, at whatever cost to the economic health of the city.

To justify this new policy, the mayor has been disingenuous, remarking that if citizens and businesses want to avoid higher fines, they should obey the law. That sentiment, of course, ignores the fact that the city has a dense and Byzantine civil code filled with dozens of obscure rules that are impossible to follow to the letter.

During the ticketing blitz in the early 1990s, sanitation inspectors hovered outside greengroceries and ticketed owners as soon as a passerby dropped some garbage in front of the store. In the latest round of violations madness, according to newspaper reports, New Yorkers are learning that it is illegal to sit on the steps of a subway station or for a retailer to display his phone number on an awning.

In either case, the lessons are the same: If some street-corner bureaucrat wants to ticket you, he can pretty much find some New York law that you've violated.

The increasingly tone-deaf mayor seems just not to care how all of this might affect the atmosphere in a city that's already groaning over more than 100,000 lost jobs, higher taxes and the ongoing threat of more terrorist attacks. After opining that New Yorkers should simply obey the law, the mayor blamed someone else for the ticketing mess—the City Council. If New Yorkers don't like all these fines, they should get the City Council to change the laws, said the businessman mayor - sounding as if he is a complete stranger to the legislative process in New York.

After that tactic didn't gain much traction, the administration tried to persuade everyone it was all a big misunderstanding: It released statistics that showed the total number of violations written in the city this year are declining.

Left unsaid, of course, is that the city is in the process of hiring all those extra parking-enforcement agents, and that right there in its budget—in black and white—the city is projecting that revenues from these sources will soar.

This may be the most revealing moment in the Bloomberg administration so far. Reasonable people can debate whether raising taxes or cutting services is the most effective way to deal with a budget crisis. But little within the realm of good government justifies an administration that will shake down its citizens and its businesses for every last nickel, making ordinary citizens feel like lawbreakers just to balance the books.

What New York needs right now from the mayor is effective management of government and inspiring leadership. Instead, it has gotten a mayor who only seems to know how to be a tax collector—or a meter maid.

Steve Malanga is a contributing editor of City Journal, from whose Web site,, this is adapted.