By Robert Kroll
No one in his right mind would pay this bill. It was six years overdue, a penalty for a crime committed by a now defunct plumber. It was not clear that the “crime”—failure to file the annual steam boiler report with the Department of Buildings Boiler Division—was even committed. Many reports are sent to the DOB and never seen again.
But it was the principle of the thing.
Our cooperative building had a mark on its record, a rap sheet as a scofflaw. Yet we take pride in following the rules of the game. The game here is that if you use a steam boiler to heat your building, you must have that boiler examined by an inspector who looks at the many knobs, pipes, gauges, and connections and determines whether they are all as required by the boiler code.
In the Teddy Roosevelt times of the last century, it was a rare week when one of these steam boilers did not blow up and send residents scattering for cover. But during the past 120 years, like so many consumer items that generated lawsuits and paid for the college educations of lawyer’s kids, the steam boiler was redesigned and made innocuous. These squalling beasts now work better with less, rather than more, steam pressure. Our boiler barely reaches two pounds of steam pressure on a good night. The worst that can happen is that they run out of water and leave every resident shivering in their down comforters.
But that’s not the point. The requirement of an inspection report still exists, and it must be complied with. And when buildings’ owners flout the rule, they are hit with $1,000 fines. If a fine isn’t paid, it remains on the record of the building until the building is sold or refinanced, at which point the piper, that is, the City of New York, gets its due.
Our building was refinanced in 2020. Before the new loan could close, the bank insisted that either the 2014 boiler report violation be paid or vacated, or that the owners of the building post the $1,000 in the bank’s escrow account, where the deposit would be held there until the matter was dealt with.
So, as superintendent and managing agent of my building, I took it upon myself to pay the fine and recover the $1,000 from the bank’s escrow account. There is where our tale begins.
I proceeded, pre-pandemic, to pay the bill. I searched the Department of Buildings online website. Because of the lockdown, the office of the boiler division was fully closed. Fines could not be paid there. I checked to see if there was a phone number or two I could call, to make a credit card payment to a city functionary and deal with the violation. Sorry. The phone numbers I called were either not answered or were answered by city employees who not only couldn’t, but wouldn’t, take my $1,000 fine payment. Furthermore, they did not know of a phone number, among the thousands of numbers, where someone with the authority to accept my company credit card would answer said phone.
More research in the past eight months revealed that there was a city website that handled fines and violations. I’ve made thousands of payments over the internet in my day and, surely, there was my answer.
I went to the designated website filled with a feeling of immense satisfaction that I hadn’t “let the bastards get me down!” But alas, the site was one of those infuriating ones that never seem to work as designed. It took you round and round from the “pay bills here” button to the FAQ page that explained that you could pay bills online and to press this button here and you would be enabled to do so. Actually, no. You couldn’t pay the bill at the “here” button.
Months went by, and summer turned to fall. Humans were returning to their places of work, vaccinated and ready to go. I returned to my search for an actual human, not a robot, who could answer a phone, to be given the chance to clear our record and pay our fine. By the middle of November I was able to locate a phone number for the Boiler Division Penalties Office (or a name to that effect).
I dialed the number, and a human answered. I explained what I wanted to do and that I was not able to do it as I was told I could. The human, who we’ll call Mark, was most sympathetic and eager to solve my “problem.”
He walked me through the so-called DOBNOW website. He urged me to sign on. I attempted to do so but was thwarted because the DOBNOW website did not recognize the access code I had created. Mark showed me how to request a new password. After a number of tries, I was able to get an email from the DOBNOWers with a genuinely unmemorizable password. I eagerly copied and pasted it into the DOBNOW site to be among the anointed who were registered to be permitted to pay six-year-old fines to NYC’s government.
From there it was a mere hop, skip and jump, times ten. The most fiendishly complex and anti-intuitive payment website turned up. But Mark was there all the way, explaining every incomprehensible instruction. After 45 minutes I received that message I had been seeking for 18 months, that my boiler fine was paid. I took a photograph of the screen, fearing that it was all just a dream.
I sent the receipt to my bank asking that the $1,000 they held in escrow be refunded to our co-op bank account. I received a message in reply: “We have received your documentation from the Department of Buildings and will be looking into it. We will get back to you when we are able to confirm the legitimacy of your contention.”
See you next year.