Deal Lowers Non-Food Related Diner Fines

NEW YORK -

Restaurants would pay millions of dollars less for inspection fines under a deal City Council Speaker Christine Quinn worked out with the Health Department, giving a battered industry some relief on an issue they have vociferously harped on since a grading system went into effect three years ago.

Under the agreement, the Wall Street Journal reported, 60 percent of all violations will result in the minimum $200 fine. Previously, fines were up to the discretion of a hearing officer. In some cases, that resulted in fines as high as $2,000 for minor offenses.

“Letter grading … was never designed to nickel and dime restaurants out of business, and that’s what’s been happening,” Quinn said. “The changes that we’re putting in place right now [will] make sure that restaurants keep money in their cash register, in their workers’ paychecks, in their wallets and pocketbooks, and not into the fine system.”

Restaurant industry officials praised the changes.

“All the restaurants in New York City are saying thank you right now,” said celebrity chef Mark Murphy, vice president of the New York Restaurant Association.

The changes, which Quinn said she hopes will go into effect at the end of this year subject to public comments, will reduce total fines collected by more than $10 million a year, from the current $40 million. It follows years of complaints by eateries that the health department’s fines were too high, seemingly subjective and didn’t help owners improve the cleanliness and safety of their kitchens and dining rooms.

Under the agreement, fines for low-severity issues, such as not properly storing two sanitized utensils, would be cut to the minimum of $200. About 60 percent of all violations fall into this category.

Also, if a restaurant garners less than 14 points in its initial inspection, they would not have to pay any fines from that inspection. And if a diner had never been cited before for a structural issue — such as an improperly placed sink — they would not be fined.

Severe fines subject to a $1,000 fine include operating without a proper license or not displaying the “A,” “B,” or “C” letter grade.

Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, Quinn’s rival in next month’s Democratic primary, noted that he has called for eliminating a fine quota system said to be in place. He slammed Quinn’s deal with the administration as a “cynical ploy” which will not impact small businesses.

Even Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who instituted the original grading system but on Sunday agreed to the deal, called it political pandering ahead of a competitive election.

“We agreed to change the policy because I think it was going to be changed by the City Council,” Bloomberg said, before launching into a strong defense of the controversial inspection and grading system.

“Most restaurateurs that I talk to love it because it’s good for their business when they get an ‘A.’ If you dumb down the whole system and give everybody an A … you’re putting the public’s lives in jeopardy,” the mayor said. “Our inspectors, one may make a mistake but they don’t all make mistakes.”

Complementing the plan for a new fine system are five bills currently before the City Council. One bill would allow a restaurant to be able to request a consultation inspection in which no fines could be levied; another creates a complaint department.