The New York Times

May 26, 2003


Will This Year Be the Summer of Citations?

By MICHAEL BRICK

Let the astronomers sweat over the sanctity of the solstice. This is the common-law start of summer, the long weekend when we are supposed to break out the barbecue and the bikini tops.

It will be long and muggy, that much is preordained. What is uncertain is whether this will be a "Summer of."

Could aging baby boomers re-enact the Summer of Love? Could two baseball players rise to greatness in a new Summer of '49? Could blackouts mean a replay of Summer of '77?

It could take a few months for the results to be tallied. But some New Yorkers fear that the early returns indicate that 2003 might be the Summer of Citations.

The city code is thousands of pages long. "In perspective, every inch of that code can be cited by somebody," said Charles G. Sturcken, chief of staff and general counsel of the Department of Environmental Protection.

And a city in dire financial straits could be under some pressure to start citing every inch of code.

It is, for example, illegal to drive over a fire hose. By law, New Yorkers cannot participate in auctions at night. Bicycle messengers are supposed to be wearing jackets that say the name of the company they work for and their identification number.

The list goes on. Fliers are not supposed to be placed on telephone poles. The solicitation of pedestrians is against the law. The possession of handcuffs by a civilian is illegal. Ditto stun guns. (This being New York, people might be in possession of either of those items at any time.)

Back at the Department of Environmental Protection, Mr. Sturcken said that the workload will probably increase somewhat over the summer for the Environmental Control Board, which processes civil violations written by other city agencies and is managed by the department.

Why does he think this? "Agencies give us a heads up when they're increasing enforcement, and we have to staff," Mr. Sturcken said.

And the price attached to many violations is rising. Starting June 1, for example, the fine for scavenging garbage will increase to $100 from $50.

Leaders of the police union, who are in the throes of an election, accuse management of using a quota system to increase the issuance of more expensive tickets.

"We're concerned that what the city is trying to do is to turn the Police Department from a police service into a revenue-generating agency," said Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg dismissed that accusation in a news conference on Tuesday.

"I think a lot of that will get over when the union election comes and goes," Mr. Bloomberg said, according to a transcript provided by the city. Addressing the quota accusation, he added: "The Police Department for many years has had productivity goals. They continue to have productivity goals. You couldn't manage a Police Department this size without productivity goals."

Still, New Yorkers could be forgiven if they continued to worry that the city might try to exact from fines what it is lacking from the tax rolls. The mayor's executive budget for fiscal year 2004, which will begin in July, anticipates $662.7 million in revenue from fines, compared with $529.2 million in fiscal 2003.

Of that, the vast majority will come from parking tickets. Those are now expected to generate $550 million, compared with $425.6 million in fiscal 2003.

In part, the increased take from tickets is a result of higher fee schedules. But the city also plans to hire hundreds of new traffic enforcement agents, generating 1.7 million additional parking citations, the budget says.

So the future seems to promise lots of citations for New Yorkers. But how are things at the moment?

The Department of Environmental Protection's statistics show that there were 498,708 civil Environmental Control Board citations served between July 2002 and March 2003, up from 483,291 in the comparable period the prior year. Much of that increase was a result of the official declaration of a drought in April 2002, which allowed for the issuance of emergency citations for water violations.

By far the most prolific issuer of civil Environmental Control Board citations in both years was the Sanitation Department, which issued 363,823 in fiscal 2003 and 360,721 in fiscal 2002. That department has about 500 officers on the streets at a time, enforcing alternate side of the street parking rules and the like. Keith Mellis, a spokesman for the department, said it has no plans to step up enforcement.

At the Summons Part of the New York City Criminal Court, which deals with both criminal and civil summonses but does not overlap with Environmental Control Board violations, the total for the year ending May 19 rose to 208,658, from 202,144 in the comparable period the year before.

None of those increases are exactly eye-popping. But perceptions can be as valuable as numbers in determining whether a summer becomes a "Summer of."

And it is difficult to avoid forming the perception that ticketing is getting out of hand when The Daily News splashes across its cover a photograph of a man who complained that he received a citation for sitting on a milk crate.

Detective Tom Kuchma, a spokesman for the police, said the incident was an example of smart police work, but he said the officer's use of the somewhat obscure milk crate statutes did not show an iota of "creativity."

"Are we teaching the officers to be creative?" Detective Kuchma said. "No."

Should the city decide to get creative in its effort to generate that additional $130 million in fines anticipated in the budget, milk crate laws are hardly the outer limits for an imaginative law enforcement officer.

Female bartenders are all supposed to be wearing, at minimum, something opaque covering their breasts. Revenue could probably be generated somewhere on the Lower East Side for violations of this one.

There are tickets waiting to be written for the consumption of alcohol, which is prohibited in the streets, playgrounds and parks. Finally, you can get a ticket for wearing a swimsuit on a public street more than 200 feet from the beach. Knowing that, it still seems safe to break out the barbecue gear for the holiday weekend, but New Yorkers may choose to leave the bikinis in the closet, at least until they start to get a sense of what this will be the summer of.