Agreement reached to reduce fines for restaurants

Members of the City Council and the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene have reached an agreement on across the board fine reductions for restaurants that will reduce fines to levels collected before the often controversial letter grading system was put in place.

Councilmember Vincent Gentile and Council Speaker Christine Quinn made the announcement on Monday, August 19, noting that the comprehensive set of legislation is being  introduced in the Council on Thursday, August 22.

For the first time, the Health Department will set specific fine amounts for each violation. Previously, violations could result in a fine between $200 and $2,000 at the discretion of a hearing officer. Under the new legislation, 60 percent of all violations will be set to the minimum $200 fine and many of the most commonly issued violations will be cut down by between 15 percent and 50 percent from the current fine average.

Also, any restaurant whose point total is less than 14 after adjudication on its initial inspection will not have to pay any fines for that inspection. If a restaurant is fined for a structural irregularity, such as an improperly placed sink, but can prove that the configuration had never been cited as a problem previously, that violation will be waived, although the restaurant will still have to fix whatever is incorrect.

In total, the fine reduction package is expected to reduce fines collected by more than $10 million annually.

Individual councilmembers also introduced some additional legislation. Under Gentile’s bill, the Department of Health would be required to develop an inspection code of conduct pamphlet that inspectors would distribute to all restaurant owners and operators prior to the beginning of an initial inspection.

“In order to help these businesses grow and succeed, health inspectors must work with restaurants owners rather than attempt to catch them off guard and penalize them,” Gentile said. “My bill develops an inspection code of conduct pamphlet based on standards that exist in the restaurant inspection process.

“As inspectors will be required to distribute the pamphlet to all restaurant owners and operators prior to an inspection,” he went on, “this bill ensures that everyone is aware of how inspections ought to proceed and no one is caught off guard. Small businesses are the backbone of our economy – it’s time for us to start acting like it.”

Quinn added, “Restaurant letter grading was never supposed to be a way to generate additional fine revenue, especially since the Health Department discovered long ago that higher fines don’t by themselves result in better sanitary conditions.

“We have to balance the needs of restaurant owners and operators with our obligation to keep restaurants clean and safe for the public,” she continued. “We’ve struck that balance with the fine reductions we are announcing today.”

“We began restaurant letter-grading to provide an added incentive to restaurants to have the best food safety practices. This system is working: restaurant practices are improving, and these practices are improving public health,” said Health Commissioner Thomas Farley. “At this point, moving to fixed fines will help give the system more predictability, and even with reduced fines, the grading system will continue to encourage restaurant managers to prepare food safely.”

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.