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Suffolk presses furniture sellers, including nonprofits, to get $600 licenses

Natalie Weinstein, president and CEO at Uniquely Natalie

Natalie Weinstein, president and CEO at Uniquely Natalie Consignment Shop, in her store where she sells like-new furniture, art and accessories, in St. James, on Dec. 17, 2014. Credit: Heather Walsh

Suffolk County is cracking down on antique stores, churches and nonprofits, including the Salvation Army, that sell home furniture without licenses, prompting lawmakers and others to accuse the county of a money grab.

Suffolk sent out more than 200 letters in October to antique stores and consignment shops, informing them they need to spend $600 in application and permit fees to sell furniture.

The letters open: "You've been identified by our office as engaging in the selling of Home Furnishings."

"It's almost a little menacing," said Natalie Weinstein, owner of Uniquely Natalie, a consignment shop in St. James, who has yet to pay. "For a small business, everything is a big thing. We take it from one pocket -- our own."

Suffolk plans to send similar letters to nonprofits and churches over the next few months, said Barbara Stoothoff, County Executive Steve Bellone's deputy commissioner of the Department of Labor, Licensing and Consumer Affairs.

Previous administrations had not required secondhand stores and charitable organizations to get licenses. Stoothoff said the agency got an opinion from the county attorney that the organizations aren't exempt from the law.

"This law is in place to protect the consumer," she said.

Bellone spokeswoman Vanessa Baird-Streeter said enforcement of the law "only serves to protect Suffolk County residents."

Charlie Gardner was Suffolk consumer affairs commissioner when the home furniture law was passed in 1997. He said Wednesday that Suffolk's new effort "seems to be an overreach of the initial intent of the legislation."

Most complaints concerned stores that failed to deliver furniture or brought the wrong furniture, Gardner said. Many secondhand stores sell a few pieces of furniture, which customers often take with them, he said.

"There was never a formal policy exempting churches and nonprofits, because we ran the program with a modicum of common sense," he said.

Stoothoff said there have been more than 280 complaints about furniture stores since 2011, although she didn't know how many involved secondhand stores.

Legis. Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) said he planned to file legislation to clarify the definition of antique dealer and seller.

"Under the guise of protecting the consumer they're robbing the retailer," Trotta said. "It's just an assault on small business, as we're trying to revitalize downtowns. Clearly this is about raising more money."

Stoothoff denied any profit motive.

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