Thursday, October 14, 2010

Dinner for Schmucks

We have already commented on the city's new asinine restaurant grading system, and how it enhances Mike Bloomberg's regulatory regime's cash nexus. In this morning's NY Times, we get a real close look at how the new system has created a bureaucratic growth industry-down at the courts that the city has set up to adjudicate the fines levied on the hapless restaurant owners: "New York’s restaurants sprawl across a vast territory, from the pristine precincts of the multicourse tasting menu to the gritty backwaters of the takeout joint. But there is one grim corner where they all come together: the health department tribunal, a little-publicized court system that metes out penalties for violations of the city sanitary code."

And court business is booming: "The traffic at the tribunal has intensified so much that the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has been looking for ways to speed the process." Sure, because time is money, lots of it. And the NY Post also chimes in on this further burdening of one of NYC's most enterprising and innovative small business sector: "The toughest reservation in town these days is at the Health Department's restaurant court, where desperate eatery owners are pounding on the doors in a last chance to improve their cleanliness grades. The agency's administrative tribunal in lower Manhattan is being swamped by restaurateurs and their representatives, some of whom wait all day for a hearing in hopes of reducing their violation points -- often the difference between landing an A, B or the dreaded C."

And who knows what's happening down at street level where the inspector and the owner first meet up-when you turn restaurants into a cash cow, small business is the one who's ox gets gored. So, when you have a visible Scarlet Letter system, the pressure is on to not become stigmatized-and a climate of bribery and coercion is created.

But in restaurant court, it is the kangaroo that is served. As the Times points out: "It is too early to measure how the new grading system, which took effect in July, will change how the court functions. But many of those who have spent time there over the years, battling the bureaucracy or quietly fuming in the waiting room, say the traffic and emotions have never been higher. “You’ve got to get here really early — this place has turned into a circus, a moneymaking circus,” Nicky Perry, who owns the West Village restaurants Tea and Sympathy and A Salt and Battery, said around 8:30 one morning in the office at 66 John Street, just after it opened. The 124 seats around her filled quickly. “They should have a picture of Bloomberg on the walls going like that,” Ms. Perry added, rubbing her hands together in mock glee."

It is here that we see just how the mayor eats out of both sides of his mouth-castigating paid sick leave as ant-business on the one hand; while crippling one of the city's most vulnerable business sector on the other. He is more than willing to get on his bully pulpit to tell folks that the government doesn't belong in the bedroom-or at marriage ceremonies-but pontificates while dramatizing just how badly his government actually intrudes on the ability of small businesses to survive in this town.

But in one sense, Bloomberg has become a job generator-for adimnistrative law judges, that is-as the Post relates: "In some cases, restaurant owners are told they'll have to come back another day because the judges just can't get to them. Officials say they're aware of the crush and are taking steps to deal with it. "It certainly is our goal that anyone who shows up will have their case heard that day," declared Tom Merrill, the department general counsel. He said the agency has 16 courtrooms to handle up to 350 cases a day and additional space might be added."

And as the Times points out, it's only going to get better-as it gets even worse for the schmucks who own restaurants in New York: "The snarl at the tribunal has intensified so much that the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has been casting about for ways to speed the process, including adding hearing rooms and encouraging restaurants to accept settlements in place of hearings. But with the new rating system, said Dan Lehman, the department’s deputy commissioner of finance and planning, fewer restaurants are choosing that option because there is “more at stake than just a fine now — there’s a letter grade.”

As we have pointed out on so many occasions, the city codes defy understanding-a situation that is exacerbated by the arbitrary nature of the inspection and the adjudication: "The throng in the waiting room kills time by trading war stories about the tribunal’s inconsistencies — Ms. Perry said that one year she was fined for having an ice-cream scoop in water and another year for not having it in water — and seemingly clueless judges. “She asked the stupidest questions,” one man said. “ ‘What does the super do?’ ‘He’s the super,’ ” he said, shrugging. “I was like: ‘O.K., Judge, I’ll pay the fine just to get out of here.’ ”

This is what the Bloomberg health mania has wrought-a costly, stupid and byzantine bureaucracy that adds a further burden to an already bad local and national business climate. And don't think for a moment that your restaurant experience has gotten any healthier, it hasn't. There is no correlation between the fines and violations and a healthier dining experience. On the other hand, restaurant owners have gotten sicker.

Meanwhile, the core mission of the DOH-ridding the city of unhealthy rodents and bugs-flags; while the agency looks to make the NYC business climate the unhealthiest one in the country.