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City Council Poised To Modify Restaurant Grading System To Lower Some Fines

Council To Take Up 5 Bills To Reform Restaurant Inspection System

CBS New York (con't)

Affordable Care Act Updates: CBSNewYork.com/ACA

Health News & Information: CBSNewYork.com/Health

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) – New York City restaurants will soon be paying lower fines for minor health department violations.

As WCBS 880’s Ginny Kosola reported, the changes to the fines associated with the city’s letter-grading system for restaurants are expected to take effect by the end of the year.

As CBS 2’s Amy Dardashtian reported Sunday evening, the restaurant letter-grading system was a signature accomplishment of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration. But Leonard de Knegt, owner of Jerry’s Café at 90 Chambers St. in TriBeCa, said the grading system has put him on the verge of going out of business.

“Over the past three years, we’ve probably spent over $30,000 in fines,” de Knegt said.

He said health inspectors exercise wide discretion, issuing exorbitant fines for minor offenses – some as high as $2,000.

“I got a fine once for $300 for a dead strawberry,” he said.

But that is all expected to change now. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn has worked out an agreement between the restaurant industry and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to lower fines to $200 for many minor issues.

“So what’s that kind of a violation? Not properly storing two sanitized utensils, and having five flies in a food-prep area during the fall and the winter,” said Quinn. “It is long-term not in the financial interest of the city to have a fine structure that puts businesses out of business.”

Under the new fine system, 60 percent of all violations will result only in the minimum $200 fine, and many of the most commonly issued violations will be see their resulting fines cut by a range of 15 to 50 percent, according to a news release.

The legislation Quinn has proposed to modify the letter-grade system would provide restaurant owners with a bill of rights pamphlet before any inspections and allow restaurant owners one ungraded inspection before any violations are issued.

Further, any restaurant with a fine point total of less than 14 after its initial inspection has been addressed will not have to pay any fines for that inspection. And if a restaurant is hit with a violation for structural irregularity such as a sink in the wrong place, but can prove that the configuration has never resulted in a fine during previous inspections, the restaurant will be ordered to fix the problem without paying any fine, the release said.

Altogether, the changes will reduce the total fines collected by more than $10 million per year, the release said.

Some in the restaurant industry have been complaining for years that the ABC-grade system is stacked against them.

Last year, the city collected $52 million in fines, compared to $33 million the year earlier, according to the New York Times.

Many restaurant owners were relieved upon hearing about the planned changes. But the manager of an A-rated Subway sandwich shop on West 34th Street, told 1010 WINS’ Gary Baumgarten the amount of the fine is not the issue. He said restaurants are kept in check by the letter grading system itself – which is not going anywhere.

“For the grading system, the customer knows what’s going on – the A, B, C. A means excellent, B means something wrong, C means something wrong,” he said.

Meanwhile, de Knegt questioned why the changes took so long, and if there really will be change.

“It’s an election year,” he said. “People talk a lot.”

Quinn said her restaurant inspection proposals have nothing to do with her mayoral run.

“We have been working — first of all, you can’t make an announcement like this, like that,” she said. “This isn’t politics. This is about delivering for New Yorkers and real results.”

Even with reduced fines, the city health commissioner told CBS 2 the letter grading system will stay in place to keep restaurant owners on their toes.

The changes in restaurant inspections and fines are part of a larger package, Quinn said.

“This Thursday at the stated council meeting, we’ll introduce five bills that will reform various aspects of the restaurant inspection system,” she said.

The other bills will add more protections for restaurant owners, such as an ombudsman’s office to handle complaints.

The council speaker added the goal is to protect the health and safety of New Yorkers while allowing restaurants to thrive.

The lower fine system was set to effect after a public hearing.

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