NEW YORK - Crystal Rivera had no idea she was on the front lines of New York City's battle to plug a multibillion-dollar budget deficit. But after the pregnant woman received a $50 fine recently for sitting on subway steps, she got the picture in a hurry.
The police officer who cited her for briefly blocking a stairwell didn't seem to care that she was exhausted and reluctant to sit on a filthy subway bench, Rivera recalled. After a futile protest, the 18-year-old Brooklyn student joined the ranks of others here who have been fined for equally bizarre violations - and are angrily protesting them.
There's Jesse Taveras, who sat on a milk crate outside the Bronx hair salon where he works, and was fined $105 for "unauthorized use of a milk crate." Israeli tourist Yoav Kashdia got a $50 citation for taking up two seats on an empty subway train.
The ticketing blitz is part of a quality-of-life crackdown that has unfolded as the nation's largest city looks for new sources of revenue. Although New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg says the city faces an economic crisis and is simply stepping up its enforcement of existing statutes, he has been hammered with criticism that these citations are a form of harassment.
"Welcome to Nitpick City," read a Daily News editorial, criticizing the new policies. "City Hall is nicking ordinary New Yorkers with a tickets for infractions so tiny nobody knew they existed. Forget quality-of-life crimes. Simply living can get you a summons."
Pedro Nazario, an 86-year-old Manhattan resident, was fined $50 by police for feeding pigeons in a park. Sal Boyd, a Greenwich Village merchant, got a $400 citation because officers said there were too many words on the awning over his small store, according to a little-known 1961 ordinance. Jacob Walzer got a $55 fine last week because police determined that the black plastic frame protecting the license plates of his parked car constituted an "improper display."
These stories have appeared in local television and newspaper reports in recent days, creating a major political headache for Bloomberg, who denies that New York is trying to squeeze people with a flurry of unfair citations. He has stressed that New York desperately needs to generate more revenue to plug an estimated $4 billion budget deficit next year. But so far, his efforts have caused him to plummet in the polls.
Barely 34 percent of New Yorkers now approve of his job performance, a record low for a modern mayor, according to several surveys. Bloomberg recently has laid off more than 3,000 city workers; he has proposed major citywide cuts in services, and lobbied successfully to raise property and sales taxes. There have been angry protests over all of these actions, but the quality-of-life citations that police and other agencies have been issuing seem to have struck a nerve of urban outrage here.
"What are they [city officials] trying to prove?" Rivera asked reporters during a sidewalk interview earlier this week. "Whose idea is all this?"
"Don't Blame the Cops!" screamed newspaper ads taken out this month by the New York Police Benevolent Association as part of a $100,000 campaign. Patrick Lynch, the union president, suggests that officers are under pressure to meet daily quotas for new citations and have been pressured to crack down on every imaginable offense. He blasted the mayor for enlisting officers in a "dishonest" push to raise funds.
"This is a crisis for New York City," he said. "This is eroding the trust between the police and the public."
Bloomberg and top police brass deny that there is any plan to flood the city with improper citations. As new stories of the latest violations have surfaced, the mayor has blamed "the sensationalist press" and other adversaries for the growing furor.
"The fact of the matter is that the police are doing a great job at keeping the quality of life in this city where we want it," Bloomberg told a meeting this week of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York. "And if, occasionally, there is a ticket that doesn't make a lot of sense - maybe in the case of the mom-to-be - it's a shame that that happens."
Bloomberg repeated his insistence that "we don't have quotas." But Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly "will tell you he has performance measurements," the mayor said.
Under pressure to raise city revenues, the mayor has proposed hiring an additional 300 police officers next year to write up an increased number of traffic tickets. The goal, budget officials have said, is to generate an additional $70 million during the next fiscal year.
New York collected an estimated $379.6 million from parking and other traffic violations last year and issued 8.1 million traffic summonses, according to a report issued yesterday by the Independent Budget Office, a watchdog group. Those revenues dipped slightly from 2001, and cash-strapped New York responded by raising parking and traffic penalties - doubling them, in some instances. The city collected $457.4 million in total fines last year.
City officials said they have no intention of relaxing the new crackdown on quality-of-life violations.
"Don't throw litter on the streets, and you won't have a problem," Bloomberg said this week. "Don't park illegally, and you won't have a problem. But we can't have it both ways. We can't have laws that say `No Parking Here' and then you complain when we give out tickets."
Josh Getlin writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.