City to revamp restaurant grades

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A restaurant displays a grade of "A." (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
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The city plans to revamp its restaurant grading system to ease fines on business owners who have long lamented the penalty structure, sources told Capital.

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, deputy mayor Lilliam Barrios-Paoli and health commissioner Mary Bassett are expected make the announcement Friday morning in City Hall.

The specific changes include reducing overall revenue from fines by about 15 percent and limiting the often-wide variations in monetary penalties determined by administrative law judges, a source briefed on the proposal said.

"It's sort of along the lines with what the mayor talked about in the campaign, being less punitive to small businesses," the source said.

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In addition, restaurants that receive A grades will be exempt from certain previous summonses, the source added.

"If the Department of Health messed up and you should've gotten an A then you don't have to pay the fines that were levied against you in the first inspection," the source said.

The alterations are an expansion of changes made last year under former council speaker Christine Quinn, who said her legislative adjustments would result in a drop in annual revenue from a high of more than $52 million in Fiscal Year 2012 to $30 million.

At the time of her announcement in July, the health department estimated it was taking in $45 million from fines and fees, much of which comes from food establishments.

In October, after she lost the Democratic primary to Bill de Blasio, Quinn passed five bills to ease the grading structure.

One measure created an ombudsman within the health department to field complaints about the program. The source said the announcement on Friday will addess this oversight position.

Her other bills included creating a Department of Health advisory board, establishing a "code of conduct" pamphlet for restaurant owners and operators to better understand the protocols of inspections, expand public databases on restaurant grades and allow eateries to request consultations with inspectors that would not impact their marks.

Restaurant grades, developed under former mayor Michael Bloomberg, are based on a specific points structure that takes into account food quality, kitchen cleanliness and other things owners often complain are arbitrary, such as cracks in tiles and dim light bulbs.

De Blasio, who is not scheduled to attend the press conference, promised to reduce small business fines during his campaign last year, but has yet to substantively address the issue as mayor so far.

In fact, his five-year revenue projections anticipate only a small drop in Department of Health fines, from $34 million this fiscal year to $30 million each year for the next four years.