The de Blasio administration has left more than $1.4 billion in uncollected fines on the table for violations of quality of life regulations thanks to a slew of bureaucratic breakdowns — money that New York City now desperately needs amid its worst financial crisis in four decades, a damning new audit found.
More than $782 million in unpaid fines issued by the Environmental Control Board could still be collected, while the other $635 million was allowed to linger for so long that officials ended up writing off the debt, the Department of Investigation revealed in a report Thursday.
And DOI said the amount of lost revenue could be even higher, but shoddy record-keeping made getting a complete tally impossible.
“New York City needs an effective and efficient collection system for its fines that govern our codes, rules, regulations and quality-of-life laws, particularly during these dire fiscal times,” said DOI commissioner Margaret Garnett, in a statement.
“Instead, DOI found numerous gaps allowing millions of dollars to go uncollected, and worse yet, a tracking system riddled with problems making it difficult, if not impossible, to zero in on an exact figure of dollars lost to New York City,” she added.
The entire system of enforcing local environmental and quality-of-life regulations and collecting fines from violators is “riddled with holes, each of which represents a place where revenue to the City from ECB fines drains away,” DOI probers wrote.
The Environmental Control Board is part of the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings and serves as the tribunal for summonses issued by the Sanitation, Police, Fire, Buildings, Parks, Transportation and Health departments alleging violations of regulations on street cleanliness, trash and waste disposal, water and air pollution, illegal street vending, building codes, historic preservation and handling of hazardous substances.
If the ECB upholds the finding, cases with fines of less than $25,000 are sent to the Department of Finance for collection, while those with larger penalties are sent to the Law Department.
But DOI discovered that none of the three agencies “maintain detailed records indicating why Summonses were not enforceable or why ECB judgments were not collectible.”
That meant that DOI was forced to rely on anecdotal accounts from employees of the three agencies to attempt to identify how more than $1 billion in fines was allowed to go uncollected.
Investigators determined in their 22-page report that there is no central database for keeping tabs on who owes money from ECB fines and that OATH, Finance and Law departments struggle to share information.
They also found that city agencies frequently fail to check for outstanding ECB violations when issuing or renewing city permits or awarding contracts for city business, leaving a potentially powerful tool to compel payment on the table.
DOI’s investigators linked 110 city vendors to unpaid ECB violations that were issued before the companies scored city business or while they were under contract to provide services.
The coronavirus pandemic punched a $9 billion hole in the Gotham’s budget that Mayor Bill de Blasio closed, in part, with unpopular cuts to trash pickup and city parks — and $1 billion in unspecified savings from the city’s labor unions.
De Blasio recently backed off of his repeated threats to lay off as many as 22,000 city employees by Oct. 1 to hit the spending target, unless he received federal aid or emergency borrowing authority from the state. De Blasio has explained the reversal by saying negotiations with organized labor are ongoing.
City Hall did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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