Mayor de Blasio Announces Plans To Tweak NYC Restaurant Grade System

Late last month New York City officials released new restaurant-grading rules designed to reduce fines by nearly 25%. Mayor Bill de Blasio had pledged during the campaign to help small businesses that he said were pummeled with unfair tickets.

Under the rules unveiled, restaurants will be inspected more often but the fine levels will be reduced and standardized. The city has established a fixed fine schedule for various violations such as evidence of rats or flies; in the past, administrative judges had discretion to impose fines from a wide range, roughly $200 to $2,000. Restaurant owners may also request a consultative inspection with no penalties to receive advice from the city on food-safety laws.

The announcement at City Hall by Melissa Mark-Viverito, the City Council speaker, and Mary Bassett, commissioner of the City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, comes in the wake of a sweeping legislative package, passed last year under then-Speaker Christine Quinn, that was also aimed at reducing fines for restaurants.

Mark-Viverito says the fines will be much more controlled and consistent. It is projected to reduce the amount of money New York City takes in from restaurants paying the fine by up to 25 percent annually. She states that the changes show that relief from heavy fees is possible by the city. Mark-Viverito continues to state that restaurants will be treated fairly without fear of compromising the purpose of the examinations and keeping the public safe from contaminated foods.

Such fines reached $52 million in fiscal year 2012 before falling more than 22%, to $40.4 million, in the fiscal year that ended in June 2013. In the current fiscal year, officials predict the city will collect $34.1 million in fines, a number that is seen falling to $30 million in the fiscal year beginning July 1.

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“The rules will provide much-needed fine relief to the city’s restaurants and will show that we can treat restaurants fairly without compromising public safety,” Mark-Viverito said.

The council speaker also said it was important to provide restaurant owners with a fixed fine schedule, but she said predictability will not compromise the integrity of the food-inspection system.

The city is scheduled to hold hearings on the new rules, beginning next month. The health department can implement the rules without any vote by the Board of Health or the City Council, and officials expect they will be in effect in early June.

Dr. Bassett lauded the new rules but defended the restaurant-grading system, which some members of the industry have long complained was unfair to restaurant owners. As restaurant performance has improved, reported cases of salmonella in the city have decreased 14% compared with the rest of the state, Bassett said.

Dr. Bassett said a “prime” mission of the health department remains a commitment to high food-safety standards. “Food safety is important,” Bassett said. “We all depend on it.”

Melissa Autilio Fleischut, president of the New York State Restaurant Association, and Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, an advocacy group, both praised the new rules.

“Restaurants all want to succeed and strive to put out the best and safest food,” Ms. Fleischut said. “These new rules will go a long way towards making the letter-grade system fairer for the restaurant industry.

Though not extensive, the restaurant grade system in New York City will be slightly tweaked in order to impact businesses less heavily. The letters will not be going away so a consumer will still know what the city thinks is a clean place and what is not as clean. The changes will affect fines that are given to restaurants during inspections.

Bill de Blasio has satisfied one of his campaign pledges to equalize treatment of small business owners. The fine change was focused on New York City’s less prominent business owners who are heavily penalized for infractions in the health code. Bill de Blasio and Mark-Viverito are political friends and have worked together on the bill to ensure its passing. The mayor was inspired by speaking to small businesses about their problems and unfair treatment was one of the major complains. He made it his mission to better support smaller New York City businesses.

The grading system implemented in 2010 by then Mayor Michael Bloomberg and slated to be changed will maintain its most outwardly visible aspect of a letter grade outside of the business. Just like school, the grades are based on the A through F scale where most restaurants who score anything less than a C tend to post that their grade is pending. The frequency of these inspections shall also remain the same. Another change is the lack of a retesting fee though some critics consider this as being a rather loose system. This allows for business owners to quickly fix the issue and get the highest grade for their restaurants.

New York City restaurant grade and fine appeals fluctuated depending on the judge overseeing the case. The previously common hundreds of dollar fluctuations in fines will be much more controlled and normalized. This will allow the restaurant to appropriately prepare for a violation’s fine instead of hoping the good will of the judge who may have personal feelings about the violation or restaurant will result in a low fine.

The changes to the city’s food inspection over the years since its creation in 2010 has steadily increased the amount of fines paid either due to changes in fines applied or the number of fines issued over time. The first year the program was implemented, New York City gained over $32 million and is projected to return to that level from the all time high of $52 million.