Gjonaj rallies for small business, but is vague on S.B.J.S.A.

Bronx Councilmember Mark Gjonaj, speaking at podium, led the “Protect NYC Jobs and Businesses Rally.” He was joined by about a half-dozen other politicians, including Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, right, and many chamber of commerce members, many of them from the Bronx. Photos by Lincoln Anderson

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Leading chants of “Enough is enough!” and “What do we want?” “Jobs!” “When?” “Now!” Bronx Councilmember Mark Gjonaj on Thursday headed scores of chamber of commerce members and small business owners in a City Hall rally demanding the de Blasio administration stop crushing small merchants with burdensome taxes and regulations.

Leading chants of “Enough is enough!” and “What do we want?” “Jobs!” “When?” “Now!” Bronx Councilmember Mark Gjonaj on Thursday led scores of chamber of commerce members and small business owners in a City Hall rally demanding the de Blasio administration stop crushing small merchants with burdensome taxes and regulations.

After the “Protect NYC Jobs and Businesses” rally, Gjonaj (pronounced “Joe-nye”) introduced the Micro-Business Transparency Act. The bill would define a “micro-business” as a locally owned company with 10 or fewer employees. The measure would also require the city’s Department of Small Business Services to conduct an annual survey to identify micro-businesses and the economic sectors in which they predominate to enable the city to develop programs to assist those that are struggling to keep their doors open.

Gjonaj chairs the City Council’s Small Business Committee.

“With the presence of national big-box stores, the rise of Internet shopping and escalating taxes and fees, New York City’s small businesses are under siege like never before,” he said at the rally. “The first step in protecting our local mom-and-pop shops is to identify exactly who they are, so that we can develop solutions that are specific to their needs. I believe that the Micro-Business Transparency Act is a crucial step in that direction.”

In addition, after the rally, Gjonaj told The Villager that a long-sought hearing for another bill to help mom-and-pops — the Small Business Jobs Survival Act — will be held by his committee this month.

According to a handout sheet provided by Gjonaj, businesses with fewer than 10 workers account for 80 percent of all jobs created in the city — “meaning that the Big Apple’s well-being is dependent on the health of its small-business sector.”

A recent study by the Center for the Urban Future found that between the years 2000 and 2013, New York City companies with fewer than five employees added more than 31,000 jobs, while companies with more than 500 employees lost more than 5,000 jobs.

Local politicians standing with Gjonaj at the rally included Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, along with Councilmembers Ydanis Rodriguez, Robert Cornegy, Robert Holden and Paul Vallone. Most of the chamber of commerce members who spoke at the rally were from the Bronx, which, in addition to being Gjonaj’s home borough, is said to have a higher percentage of small businesses than Manhattan, for one.

City Councilmember Robert Cornegy — who was a leading candidate for City Council speaker last year — said if each small business could add just one more worker, employment in the city would go up 50 percent. “Build capacity,” he urged.

However, advocates for the Small Business Jobs Survival Act are keeping a careful watch on Gjonaj and his committee, fearing they might “water down” the long-stalled legislation. The S.B.J.S.A. is championed by a group called the Small Business Congress and also by a newer offshoot group, the Campaign to Stop REBNY Bullies. Both groups say that the powerful Real Estate Board of New York has, for decades, worked behind the scenes to ensure the S.B.J.S.A. never comes up for a vote by the full City Council.

According to the Campaign to Stop REBNY Bullies, an intact S.B.J.S.A. would guarantee all commercial tenants — “whether storefronts on the ground floor or professional offices on the 20th floor” — the right to negotiate fair lease terms; the right to renew leases for a minimum of 10 years; an end to oppressive landlord “pass-along” costs to commercial tenants; and a right to arbitration to stop “rent-gouging.”

S.B.J.S.A. advocates argue that, in fact, the lease-renewal process is the biggest obstacle for small businesses, since that’s when landlords typically jack up the rents they are seeking, often forcing out longtime tenants if they no longer can afford it.

Trying to get to the root of the matter — small businesses need help.

During the 45-minute press conference, the S.B.J.S.A. was mentioned only once, however, by Councilmember Rodriguez, who is a member on Gjonaj’s Small Business Committee.

“Mark Gjonaj is working to have a hearing on the Small Business Jobs Survival Act,” Rodriguez stated, to applause from the rally.

Noting how small businesses played a crucial role in his start in New York City, Rodriguez said, “When I came here in 1983, I washed dishes — O’Henry, W. Fourth and Sixth [Ave].”

He wouldn’t have survived it here without that job, he said.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson — who appointed all the Small Business Committee’s members and its chairperson, Gjonaj — has vowed there will be a hearing on the S.B.J.S.A. However, Johnson has also stressed that the bill is “not a silver bullet,” and that a range of strategies will be needed to help save mom-and-pop shops.

After the press conference, The Villager asked Gjonaj about advocates’ fears that the S.B.J.S.A. would be modified and its protections for small businesses weakened. Gjonaj sounded like he’s basically on the same page as Johnson.

“There’s a big forest out there and there’s not one issue,” he said. “It’s a collection of issues.”

A “comprehensive” approach to tackle the problem will be needed, he said.

Asked if he hopes to keep the bill as is or would work to modify it, Gjonaj would only say, “We’re going to look at it.”

The “out” for politicians when asked if they support the S.B.J.S.A. has always been to state flatly that it’s “not legal” — yet never then explaining exactly why that’s the case. That’s what Bill de Blasio and former Council Speaker Christine Quinn both told The Villager during their interviews for the paper’s endorsement when they ran for mayor in 2013. Likewise, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer basically has said the same thing.

However, the legislation’s supporters want the Council’s Small Business Committee to resolve — one way or another — all questions about this alleged “legal issue” before the hearing on the bill actually occurs — so that this question doesn’t dominate the proceedings.

Asked if these legal issues would be examined and resolved before the hearing, Gjonaj said, “There are questions about legalities and we will look at it.”

Advocates for the S.B.J.S.A. — including Marni Halasa, lower right, and Ray Rogers, at left — worry that Chairperson Mark Gjonaj and his fellow Small Business Committee members will try to modify the bill to weaken its protections for mom-and-pop shops. The S.B.J.S.A. has been blocked from coming up for a vote before the full City Council for more than two decades. Halasa ran for election against Council Speaker Corey Johnson last year.

Asked again whether any legal questions would be settled by then, he said, “I don’t know — that’s why the hearing’s so important. … There’s some time before the hearing [on the S.B.J.S.A.], and we will look at it.”

As for when the hearing on the long-stymied legislation would be held, he said, “Soon — next month, July.”

Across from them, on the south side of the City Hall plaza, a few members of the Campaign to Stop REBNY Bullies stood holding a large banner. They were skeptical of Gjonaj’s press conference, adding that laws — not tax breaks — are what is needed to save small shops.

“This is a distraction,” Lena Melendez, from Washington Heights, scoffed of Gjonaj’s rally. “We need legislation to protect small businesses. They’re jerking us around.”

A graveyard for small businesses — what S.B.J.S.A. advocates say will become of mom-and-pop stores if the long-stalled bill is not passed.

Similarly, Bennett Kremen, a writer from Chelsea, wondered if the whole thing was merely a ruse to shift the focus off the S.B.J.S.A. It’s a prevalent suspicion among the bill’s advocates: namely, that members of the Small Business Committee and others — including some who even say they are supporters of the S.B.J.S.A. — are, in fact, secretly working to neuter the bill.

“Some of the people up there said the right things,” Kremen offered. “There were a few people who mentioned the rent. Is it a plant? I don’t know.”

The S.B.J.S.A. supporters also don’t trust Gjonaj because they say he is a property owner.

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