By Paula Katinas
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Being unsanitary in New York City is costly. Very costly. Restaurant owners who get low grades from city health inspectors are going to be laying out approximately $40 million in fines this year, according to an estimate by New York’s health commissioner. And now the city wants to collect.
Dr. Thomas Farley told City Council members at a budget hearing on May 28 that revenue from health-related fines levied against restaurants would hit $40 million this year. But that’s a drop from previous years, officials said.
It’s still too much, Councilman David Greenfield (D-Borough Park-Bensonhurst) charged. Greenfield told Farley that he has received numerous complaints from restaurant owners in his council district who said that the inspections and the fines are too much.
“We have received very specific complaints about arbitrary rules, different standards from different inspectors, lots of focus on non-food safety items and other issues. There have been many complaints from this body, restaurant owners and the media involving abuses or unfairness in the ways some restaurants have been treated,” Greenfield told Farley at the hearing.
Greenfield noted that fines issued to restaurant owners for health violations have increased dramatically over the past few years, from $27.7 million in Fiscal Year 2009 to $52.4 million in Fiscal Year 2012. He asked Farley what was behind the huge windfall for the city and whether increases in unsanitary restaurants, additional enforcement, or other factors were responsible.
Farley told Greenfield that the frequency of inspections went up after the city instituted its now-famous letter grade system.
Robert Long, owner of the Yellow Hook Grille in Bay Ridge, said restaurant owners are frustrated. "The city is slowly putting restaurants out of business with these fines," he said.
The fines are so excessive, according to Long, that restaurant owners often factor them into their annual budgets. "The inspectors come four times a year and each time, it usually costs a restaurant $2,000 in fines. I once got a fine for having a melted ice cube on the floor next to the freezer. We have to factor the fines in our budgets," he said.
"The people in the Bloomberg Administration talk all the time about the importance of mom and pop stores. But they're putting the mom and pop restaurants out of business," Long said.
Long said he believes the situation has a negative effect on the city's economy. "Restaurant owners can't hire the number of people they want to hire. You can't afford to both pay these fines or give someone a job. You can't do both," he said.
At the hearing, Greenfield requested that the Health Department break down the approximately $40 million in fines the agency expects to be collected this fiscal year to see what percentage was due to non-food related violations such as having an uncovered light bulb in a storage closet. “This would be very useful in terms of educating restaurant owners as to what the most common fines are, and might lead to research as to why some violations are being enforced or not being enforced,” he said.
Greenfield said that one restaurant owner in his district was cited for having a wet floor he had just finished mopping. Another eatery owner was hit with fines for food that was too hot even though it just came out of the oven and was still cooling.
“I have worked hard on behalf of restaurant owners to bring greater consistency and fairness to our inspection process, so it is a huge relief to see that the city appears to be issuing fewer fines this year. At the same time, I am disappointed that the city has not done more to ensure that the system is fairer for restaurant owners while serving its intended purpose of keeping the public safe,” Greenfield said.