The City of Rochester's nuisance points system could be a vital tool to help the Beechwood neighborhood in its prolonged fight against problem mini markets, says Kyle Crandall, president of the Beechwood Neighborhood Coalition. But city officials are not using it the way they could and should be, he says.
Businesses receive nuisance points for violations of the law and the municipal code; the number of points depends on the severity of the violation. Too many points in a set time period means that the business is at risk of being shut down by the city.
Some of the mini markets in city neighborhoods are magnets for trouble, such as drug dealing and food-stamp fraud.
"Unfortunately, in my 17 years living in the neighborhood, I have never seen any of the mini markets in Beechwood close due to the nuisance points system, when we've had several that should have," Crandall says. "Right now, we see it as a tool that could work, but we see it as a broken system when it's, for whatever reason, not enforced."
Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren said at a meeting of the Beechwood Neighborhood Coalition on Thursday night that she's not aware of any mini markets in Beechwood that currently have enough points to be shut down.
City attorney Brian Curran, while not speaking directly about the situation in Beechwood, says that people often misunderstand how the nuisance points system works as well as its intent, which is to reform and abate, not to punish.
The City of Rochester is poised to hire a consultant to review the nuisance points system. This month, City Council will weigh legislation to pay Rochester-based Strategic Community Intervention a maximum of $63,887 to identify best practices to address public nuisances, and to help the city make sure that the nuisance points program is equitable and efficient. The review will also analyze and compare similar processes throughout the state.
The number of points a business gets for each violation is spelled out in the city code. A business gets six points for gambling offenses or food-stamp fraud, for example, four points for exceeding occupancy limits, and three points for littering.
Once a business receives either 12 points in a six-month period or 18 points in a year, a legal proceeding can get under way to close the business down. The property owner can contest the charges at a hearing, and the commissioner of neighborhood and business development makes the ultimate decision on whether or not the business can keep operating, based on the recommendation of a hearing officer.
"I think it's an effective tool generally to deal with the most problematic properties," Curran says. "Whether it really addresses the concerns the neighborhoods have about some of the mini marts, I don't know. It doesn't seem to address all of the concerns, so it may well be that we need to look at other ways to address those concerns."
Critics of the process say that points aren't applied fairly across the city; the points are assigned by each quadrant's Neighborhood Service Center, and critics say that the centers have different standards. That's one of the reasons for the pending review, Curran says, to see if that's true.
The city would also like to expedite the process, he says, by setting a regular date for the hearings.
People have to remember that the purpose of the law is to abate nuisances, he says; it's not a criminal investigation designed to bring someone down. And some people see certain activities, like youth hanging out in front of a store, and assume that something illegal is going on, Curran says. But to close a business is a fairly drastic action, he says, and you need more than anecdotal evidence.
Many business owners are just as eager as the city to address problems at their stores, he says.
Beechwood is saturated with mini markets, Crandall says, and that compels some store owners to turn to unsavory practices such as buying food stamps or selling loose cigarettes to make money. Beechwood has 23 mini markets.
"If we had half the mini markets in Beechwood, then that would probably be able to supply the demand of the neighborhood," he says. "They're just trying to do anything they can to make money, which is not healthy for our neighborhood."
It's also a drain on police resources, Crandall says. One mini market on Bay Street had between 125 and 150 calls for police service in a single year, he says.
Warren said last night that the saturation question depends on how you define mini markets. If a store sells a lot of grocery items, for example, some people don't see it as a mini market in the negative sense, she said.
Beechwood has also tried, unsuccessfully, to get the city to stop approving new mini markets in the neighborhood, something that Warren said that the city does not have the power to do.
The city's strategy had been to limit the number of so-called "high impact" items a mini market can sell. These items include alcohol, tobacco, and lottery tickets. But the city learned, Warren said, that it does not have the authority to impose those limitations.
Beechwood resident Marion Hunte-Robinson said at Thursday's meeting that the city should work with the mini markets to understand their side of the story. The owners don't want people selling drugs outside their stores, either, she said, by way of example, and residents don't necessarily want the store closed, leaving another vacant building in Beechwood.