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Street vendors deserve a break

Recently, street vendors held a rally to protest exorbitant city fines. They’ve got a point.

Vendors selling food, art and miscellaneous goods have been a part of the New York streetscape for centuries; the founders of Macy’s, D’Agostino’s and Cohen’s Fashion Opticalrose from pushcart roots. How many New Yorkers buy their morning coffee from a cart?

Of course, not everyone selling on the street is a legal vendor – we’re not talking about the criminals selling pirated DVDs, but the men and women who operate under city licenses and pay city taxes. It’s these vendors, many of them immigrants, who see themselves as unfairly targeted by police and an assortment of agencies enforcing obscure city laws.

Estimates vary depending on just who you count as a street vendor, but it seems the city assesses millions a year of these fines, which typically start off as a $250 ticket but quickly escalate to $1,000. Collection is another matter: The Independent Budget Office estimates that only $800,000 was collected in 2008-9.

Brooklyn City Councilman Steve Levin has 35 colleagues signed on to his bills to reduce the fines. He claims the overriding issue is fairness. While setting penalties that fit the tiny scale of these businesses, he says, the city can still protect consumers. There’s no excuse for an enforcement approach that seems to mainly seek to maximize revenue.

Enforcement borders on the insane. Street vendors are harassed with summonses for inane violations that have little to do with health or safety – minor infractions such as failing to display a license, placing boxes beside the cart, being one foot too close to the crosswalk and so on.

Several vendors have told me similar tales of getting ticketed by an agent muttering that he or she has to “finish” their summons book. Others claim that authorities use an avalanche of summonses as way to intimidate vendors from particular locations.

At least, vendors should have a reasonable chance to correct low-risk violations before incurring large fines.

The Street Vendors Project (an advocacy project of the Urban Justice Center)calls the fine structure aneconomic injustice that punishes the very immigrants, veterans and entrepreneurs our city should be helping. Vending provides entry-level opportunities for hardworking immigrants who’d rather provide for their families than accept public assistance. Many general vendors (those selling nonfood items) are military veterans who’ve earned our gratitude and support.

Instead of looking upon street vendors as a cash cow, the Bloomberg administration should be assisting this classic New York industry. Mayor Bloomberg’s support of the Dream Act and immigration reform is hollow if he won’t help immigrant street vendors achieve the American Dream.