The City Council has reached an agreement with the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene that will result in lower fines, but also less-severe penalties, for restaurant owners whose establishments are found to contain multiple violations during inspections. Restaurateurs and the New York State Restaurant Association were quick to applaud the legislation, which was spearheaded by council speaker Christine Quinn and will be introduced this week. The new rules are expected to reduce the amount of fines overall by $10 million dollars in the first year.
The old system, which allowed inspectors to assign fines at more or less anywhere between $200 and $2,000 for critical violations, will be overhauled in place of a replacement that will ground the penalty amount for an estimated 60 percent of violations at a fixed $200. The penalty for other kinds of common violations will be lowered by "between 15 and 50 percent from the current fine average," the NYSRA estimates, and additionally, restaurant owners will be afforded a degree of increased leniency with regard to structure-related violations, such as improperly hanging light fixtures, an errant shelf, or a sink placed in the wrong corner. Proprietors will still be required to fix the issue at hand, but if they can prove they’d never been cited for the violation, the restaurant will not be fined.
The government agency collected, or tried to collect, $51.4 million in fines last year. Smaller business owners like Mark Lugris of the ancient West Village restaurant El Faro and the owners of Café Forant in Hell’s Kitchen said that insurmountable fines related to noncritical violations caused the closures of each restaurant last year.
Speaker Quinn proposed the tweaks to the letter-grade system last summer, then again in the fall, and again last month. Nonetheless, the mayoral hopeful’s plan was called out in the Daily News by a spokesman for opponent Bill de Blasio as a "cynical ploy that will have little impact on small businesses."
The legislation arrives at a time when critics have pointed out that technical language that serves as the basis for the letter-grade system is difficult to understand. Other reports don’t seem to grasp the purpose of the myriad food-safety rules and purpose of inspections. Supporters of the legislation say the changes will keep the public safe the same as before and also keep some restaurateurs in business. “Letter grading … was never designed to nickel-and-dime restaurants out of business, and that’s what’s been happening,” Quinn says.
Christine Quinn and the Health Department reach deal to lower fines for restaurants [NYDN]
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