Speaker Quinn's New York City: More Communication, Less Red Tape

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Contradictory regulations, Kafka-esque bureaucratic mazes, and a financial cliff crumbling the foundation of where we stand. 

The New York City as described in City Council Speaker Christine Quinn's State of the City Speech is one in need of changes — big, small, and at times, absurdly obvious.

"It sounds crazy," Quinn said at one point in her speech, about contradictory rules given by different city inspectors to one small business owner, "but it's far from unique. We hear stories like this from small business owners every day."

Quinn told the story of Oliver Stumm, owner of Cafe Select whose dealing with city inspectors was as bizarre as it was funny.

"The first inspector told Oliver that an open kitchen was in fact illegal, and he’d have to build a wall from floor to ceiling. The next inspector said an open kitchen was okay, but the wall had to be five feet high. A third inspector said the wall had to be six and a half feet high. A fourth said it had to be eight feet — and when asked why, he said, “Do you know how tall some people are these days?”"

The blame, she said, was clear.

"City agencies just aren't communicating with each other. They aren't even communicating with their own employees."

To that end, Quinn announced a streamlining of permit approval process, modeled on the city's 311 system. City officials at this new one-stop shop will "get to know your business and your needs, then coordinate with each city agency on your behalf."

Overall, Quinn said she wanted to "dramatically redefine the way government interacts with small businesses."

Quinn underscored her opposition to Bloomberg's plan to cut capital projects across the board by 20 percent, offering instead to make down payments in order to borrow less money to underwrite those projects.

"That kind of across the board cut comes with serious consequences — and I simply cannot support it," said Quinn.

"We'll steadily increase the amount we pay out of pocket, until we're investing a billion dollars a year, instead of borrowing that billion dollars and leaving our kids with the bill," she said.

The move could be a source of construction jobs and economic development throughout the city, something rare during a fiscal downtown on the city, state and federal governments.

Parking regulations would be eased also.

"Almost every New Yorker has a story about getting a ticket they didn't deserve," she said. New legislation would be written to allow ticket agents to literally "tear up" a ticket when a motorist presented proof that they stepped away form their car in order to purchase a parking ticket at a nearby meter. The problem, Quinn said, of those wrongfully issued tickets was bountiful.

When it came to lowering the city's expenses, Quinn acknowledged pensions with the city labor unions needed to be renegotiated but stopped short of outlining areas of potential savings.

"Our current pension and benefit structure is simply not sustainable," she said.

She called for the creation of a "red alert" system to track when affordable housing units that are about to go market-rate, giving tenants groups — and their elected officials — a chance to contact the landlord or developer in order to start negotiations in order to preserve those units.

Quinn contrasted the city's lack of monitoring of affordable housing units with the countdown clock in Coney Island that alerts passersby when the next hot dog eating contest will take place.

For the Manhattan-based Democrat who has been leading the Council since 2006, many of Quinn's proposals were aimed at eliminating the "red tape" of the "bureaucracy" surrounding city government.

Politically, it's a novel approach to proactively rebut what her likely 2013 mayoral rivals will do: tie her down to the less desirable aspects of city government. Rep. Anthony Weiner, former Comptroller Bill Thompson, City Comptroller John Liu, Public Advocate Bill DeBlasio are likely challengers and have less direct responsibilites over city agencies than Quinn.

Advance excerpts from the speech focused on her proposals to reduce parking violations rules. But the speech had broader, more significant proposals were announced at the speech, delivered at the CUNY Graduate Center.

The easing of parking rules on streets where multiple-day cleanings are not necessary is a proposal that will impact outer boroughs like Queens and Brooklyn — places the Manhattan Democrats has sought to focus since becoming Speaker.

It's unclear if the reduced street cleaning will result in additional street cleaning in other, more problematic streets. If not, it would be a novel maneuver: announcing a service cut as an easing of burdensome parking rules.