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Queens Chronicle

Grade changes seek to give NYC eateries a break

Council, Health Department plan to reduce some fines for violations

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Posted: Thursday, March 27, 2014 10:30 am

The city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has announced changes to the city’s controversial grade system for restaurants that the agency says will reduce fines by 25 percent, returning to levels that existed before the framework on the policy was introduced in 2010, despite more frequent inspections.

The new rules, which will also give restaurant owners the opportunity to request a consultative, ungraded and penalty-free inspection, will be brought before the public for comment. They seek to reduce monetary fines for violations, though the points system will not be changed.

The grading system began in June 2010 and awards restaurants a letter grade corresponding to a total number of points. The grade is to be displayed in the window.

Under the system, a public health hazard, such as failing to keep food at the right temperature, triggers a minimum of 7 points. If the violation can’t be corrected before the inspection ends, the Health Department may close the restaurant until it’s fixed. A critical violation, for example serving raw food such as a salad without properly washing it first, carries a minimum of 5 points. A general violation, such as not properly sanitizing cooking utensils, receives at least 2 points. Restaurants with a score between 0 and 13 points earn an A, those with 14 to 27 points receive a B and those with 28 or more a C. Eateries have the opportunity to improve on their letter grade after an inspection by clearing up violations.

The changes will also reduce fines for a number of first-time violations. The city will also now offer voluntary inspections that don’t result in any penalties and are meant to help guide an owner through the process.

“We are ensuring that while maintaining rigorous standards of safety that the department helps restaurants to navigate the inspection process,” Health Commissioner Mary Bassett said at the announcement of the changes last Friday.

Many restaurant owners have complained that the system has become a source of revenue for the city, with fines being issued for a number of violations that have little to do with sanitary conditions and small violations that could cost up to thousands of dollars even for restaurants that still get an A rating.

Several owners said they did not want to comment on the record about the grading system, but they did note a myriad of issues they’ve had with the city over the system.

“Sometimes, it seems very unfair and very time consuming,” said one manager of a Rego Park restaurant, who declined to have her name and establishment published. “At the very least I hope the new changes focus more on sanitary conditions and less on minutiae.”

Among the items the managers described were fines over placement of silverware, size of napkins and locations of kitchen appliances, all items that they argue have little to nothing to do with cleanliness and receiving a low number of points. Some complained that health inspectors come at prime business hours when it is more likely they will find a small violation that would only carry a small point value, but a large fine.

An owner of a Douglaston eatery who did not want to be identified said he received over $2,500 in fines during an inspection in 2011 despite earning an A rating.

Under the new proposed changes, he would not have had to pay anything. The proposed changes include allowing restaurants whose scores total less than 14 points in an initial inspection — which would award a grade of A — to not pay any fines for the remaining sanitary violations on that inspection. Additionally, the agency would not issue a violation for a structural problem if prior inspections failed to notice it and conditions have not been changed, though the restaurant would still be required to fix it.

Last February, Mayor de Blasio, then still public advocate, released a report showing that revenue from the DOH during the Bloomberg administration shot up more than 600 percent from $8 million in 2002 to $52 million, bolstering accusations the violations were being used by the previous mayor to pad the city’s coffers to avoid raising taxes. In fiscal year 2015, the first full year after these changes are scheduled to be implemented, the Health Department projects raising $30 million from fines.

The proposed changes are an expansion of reforms initiated by former Council Speaker Christine Quinn, one of de Blasio’s mayoral rivals, last October. When Quinn proposed them last summer, in the heat of the mayoral campaign, de Blasio called the reforms “a cynical ploy.”

The mayor admitted during a press conference last week that he had “a change of heart” about the proposals, but did say they needed to go further.

Public comment on the new rules will be accepted through April 29 at 5 p.m. Comments can be submitted online atrules.cityofnewyork.us, by email at resolutioncomments@health.nyc.gov. A public hearing is scheduled for April 29 from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. at DOH’s headquarters, 42-09 28 St. 14th floor, room 14-43 in Long Island City.

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