Council Seeks to Ease Growing Fines for Restaurants

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Dimly lit storage closets. Dented food cans. Improper signage. These are some of the violations for which the city's restaurants can be fined, and each infraction can cost owners anywhere from $200 to $2000 apiece.

The City Council is considering legislation that would allow inspectors to give warnings for violations that do not threaten food safety as a package of measures aimed at helping small businesses.

If passed, the legislation will also require the city’s Health Department and other agencies to identify any codes or regulations that should be eliminated or have become obsolete.

The Health Department said it’s meeting its goal of improving sanitary practices at the city’s restaurants. It expects to see fines drop this fiscal year as a result.

“As restaurant inspection results continue to improve, restaurants are inspected less frequently, which means fewer opportunities for fines,” said department spokesperson Alexandra Waldhorn.

Paul Seres, co-owner of Lower East Side restaurants DL and Dinner, said he welcomes the proposed relaxation of fines but is skeptical the city will adopt them.

“I don't think fines are going to go down. I don't,” he said. “How are you going to take away millions of dollars in fines in a city that's broke? I mean, financially and fiscally, it doesn't make sense."

Restaurant fine revenue has increased about $10 million annually over the past few years. Last fiscal year, which ending in June 2012, the city collected $51.4 million in fines, according to the Department of Health.

“So often they feel that the city uses their business as an ATM,” said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance. “The laundry list of violations operators can be cited for goes way beyond the focus on food safety.”

Rigie said he hears complaints from bar and eatery owners that the city’s restaurant grading system in effect since 2010, is too punitive.

“They’re just constantly being hit with $500 or $1000 fines for violations that either shouldn’t be considered one at all,” he said.

The first measure in the package will be introduced this week.