Vendors Push for Reduced Fines

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They're everywhere in the city. No, we're not talking about cabs on the road or rats in the subway, but the street vendors who sell everything from hats, umbrellas, books and bags, to gyros, churros and ices. Many of these street business owners are veterans and/or immigrants.

Shortly after noon on Thursday, Feb. 16, hundreds of members of the Street Vendor Project (SVP) marched and rallied in front of City Hall in protest of what they consider unfair fines and practices imposed by the city. The SVP, which represents 1,200 of the 10,000 vendors in the city, reported that over 40,000 tickets were issued to vendors by the NYPD for various violations last year.

"We pursue these tickets in litigation and to fight for our members," said Sean Basinski, director of the SVP at the Urban Justice Center. "Doing some quick math, about 15,000 out of the 26,000 tickets our members got last year still resulted in fines. It's just crazy, and it's driving vendors out of business."

Basinski and the other elected officials present at the rally aren't arguing for the city to throw the concept of fines out the window. Instead, they're pushing the City Council to vote on two pieces of legislation that would lower the maximum fine and change the way fines are compounded.

Currently, first-offense fines range from $25 to $50 but quickly rack up with subsequent offenses until they reach sums of $1,000. Offenses don't have to be related to be compounded, making it common for many vendors to pay over $1,600 a year in tickets. Under the new legislation, fines would only go as high as $250 and would only increase for related violations.

James Williams, an eight-year board member of the SVP and a vendor for nine years, paid $1,000 to renew his license last year.

"I've been fined before with $1,000 tickets. Most of us have. Usually it's for things like licenses not being properly displayed, problems with the tables, having stuff a few inches too far from the curb. We've been facing hard times from the police and the Department of Health, who seem to be against us as small business owners."

The harsh fines have hit many vendors very hard. For Azucena Vasquez, a 38-year-old mother of three, it was the hardest hit of all. After going to college, she was unable to find a job with her degree and turned to vending part-time to support her family. Unfortunately for the ice cream seller, she was written several tickets for different offenses and couldn't pay the tickets that cost $1,000 each.

"When I went to court, they insisted that I pay the fines. I couldn't afford to because I have to support my children and they just didn't care, and now I've lost my vending license," she said.

Many street vendors are also veterans, including the disabled Vietnam veteran Derrick Wilmot. He doesn't understand the crackdown because vendors have helped fight crime in the past, including the attempted Times Square bombing in 2010. "We don't rob, cheat or steal. We try to follow the rules and we're just like everyone else. We want to earn enough to feed our families and at the end of the day go home, relax, watch some TV and spend time with our loved ones."

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