Full Interview: NYC Mayoral Candidate John Liu
New York City is in the midst of a tech start-up boom. It's home to an increasing number of venture-capital firms, co-working spaces, and business incubators. Mayor Mike Bloomberg, an entrepreneur himself, has helped herald in this era by creating an office of NYC Digital, and, through the New York City Economic Development Corporation, creating NYC Tech Talent Draft, NYC Next Idea, and NYC Venture Fellows. New York City is also home to tens of thousands of small, family-owned, and immigrant-owned businesses that sometimes struggle to keep up with complex regulations and taxes in one of the most expensive cities in the world in which to do business. Nearly a year after Hurricane Sandy hit New York City, these businesses also have questions about the role of government in helping them through disaster--in addition to helping them thrive and grow on sunnier days. There's a lot at stake for the future of small business in this upcoming mayoral election. So over the past two weeks, I have interviewed four candidates running in the Democratic primary election for Mayor of New York City. Here's the transcript of an interview with New York City comptroller John Liu, lightly edited and slightly condensed. (Links to additional candidate interviews are below.)
What is the current state of small business in New York City? And what do you want to change about it?
Small business is struggling in New York City. It's struggling because even though our current mayor says it's the economic backbone of the city, small business continues to be the revenue-generator and the budget-balancer for the state of the city's fiscal affairs, and that should not be the case.
How would you do it differently?
I'm looking to reduce the tax burden on small business owners, and to end the ticket blitzes, specifically, I'm looking to eliminate general corporation tax for 240,000 small business owners across the city by closing some of the loopholes that allow, for example, insurance companies to be exempt from that same general corporation tax.
It is my hope that by reducing the tax burden on small business owners that we can help them grow their businesses and in doing so, create jobs.
What specifically should we do in New York to decrease the bureaucracy one must go through to get started, licensing, inspections, etc.? Or should we?
The bureaucracy when it comes to start-ups or business continuity is appalling. There have been so many programs announced under the Bloomberg administration to supposedly streamline the bureaucracy, and I don't think they've gone anywhere. So it's a battle on multiple fronts for small business owners that I want to help them in. Number One: the high tax burden. I have a plan to reduce that by making sure that everybody pays their fair share, and that means larger corporations no longer get the tax loopholes to wiggle through. And I want to use the money generated there to reduce the tax burden on small businesses.
Number Two: I do want to cease-and-desist on the ticket blitzs that really make for nightmare situations for small-business owners. I really think people understand that in New York City we have high taxes. I'm not saying that we will be able to reduce the overall tax structure of the city anytime soon, because we still face defecits. But at least we can make things more manageable for small-business owners by hitting them out of the blue with thousands of dollars of instant tickets.
Third, helping them navigate through the bureaucracy. To do that we need to have a stronger Department of Small-Business Services, which right now does very little--it does help small businesses with marketing and some certification of minority businesses, but it's not a champion of small business when it comes to the other parts of city government. Under my administration that would be different.
Do you mean working with other agencies?
Yeah. The Department of Finance, the Department of Buildings, the Department of Consumer Affairs, the Department of Health, the Department of Sanitation.
How important is the tech start-up scene in New York City? Do you think there are changes that need to be made to Silicon Alley?
I think we should be nurturing the tech sector much more so in New York City. And there are lots of programs to help start ups navigate through the bureaucracy. But not enough direct assistance. The more fundamental aspects of tech start-ups are not being taken care of. For example, the telecommunications and utilities that we have in New York City still are not very geared towards customer service. Somebody wants to start a business, they need this. Something as simple as getting WiFi connected takes weeks. And the connectivity is still poor in too many parts of the city. All this talk about helping businesses thorugh the bureaucracy amounts to little if they can't even get the fundamentals up.
What about the geography of everything? So many tech start-ups are concentrated in Grammercy, Union Square, and Tribeca.
Geography has not been steered by government, but by market forces. I would encourage more development in the boroughs outside of Manhattan as well. I think it's great that this natural emergence has occurred in the lower part of Midtown, but there's tremendous potential in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island as well.
There are thousands of small businesses that have been affected by Hurricane Sandy. How would you fix or nurture disaster preparedness?
Ever since September 11, disaster preparedness has become higher in the consciousness of business owners in general. Flood or no flood, September 11 really galvanized the feeling in businesses that they have to be ready for anything. The city can help with better information in terms of what the potential calamities might be based on the location of the business and what precautions or measures they can take in advance to mitigate the impact of such calamities.
For example, businesses that are located in flood-prone areas, simple reminders that electrical equipment or power sources, including power generators, should not be located in basements, if at all possible. Servers should not be located in basements that would be more prone to flooding. And to remind business owners of the need for regular back-ups.
Have you ever started a business?
I have not, although my mom did have a small grocery store in Queens when I was a teenager. As immigrants, this was part of the hard work experience. It was never fun, it was never good, hearing anything from the city. It was always was news when you heard from the city. And that shouldn't be the case. The city government should be a partner with small businesses to create jobs and grow the economy. Not the other way around.
How would the folks on your campaign describe you as a boss?
Best boss ever. [laughs] I try to motivate people and align our individual incentives with organizational incentives. And then let people do their best. Each individual person has their own career goals, and short and long term goals, and I try to match their goals up with what the overall goals need to be in the organization. That means encouraging people to identify what it is that they want to do, and give them suggestions in terms of what skills they need to improve upon, and letting them do so.
How are your tech skills? What sort of apps do you like? Do you do your own social media?
No, I don't do my own social media, nor do I take pictures of myself. I use Pandora quite a bit. I'm too cheap to bypass the commercials on it, though.
If you were to start a business in New York, what would it be?
It's probably illegal to put someone through that much torture! I'd be more inclined to start a non-profit organization. In some ways that resembles starting a small business. Something that helps develop kids skills.
So you're not in it for the money?
No! Not in a non-profit venture. Of course not.
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CHRISTINE LAGORIO-CHAFKIN | Staff Writer | Senior Writer
Christine Lagorio-Chafkin is a writer, editor, and reporter whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Village Voice, and The Believer, among other publications. She is a senior writer at Inc.