Tuesday, December 21, 2010

What a Fine Mess

We have been discussing the city council initiative to reduce the regulatory burden on the city's peddlers-right in the midst of the news that scores of scofflaw vendors are thumbing their noses at the city. What makes this even more egregious is the way in which the DOH is whacking restaurants big time-with nary a peep from the pity party.

The WSJ has the story: "While restaurants fought the city's new grading method, there is another aspect of the system that in some ways has created even more angst: the fines. Restaurant owners say they are racking up thousands of dollars in fines because the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is conducting more frequent inspections. So worries about being branded with the Scarlet C—the lowest grade for cleanliness and food-safety practices—have been displaced with frustrations over what some view as nothing more than a stealth tax."

So the Bloombergista regulatory regime continues to make life a living hell for the city eateries: "It's just a punitive system designed to get money, there's no other way to look at it,' said Rafael Mateo, chef and owner of Pata Negra. "I'm a small-business owner, I'm not a Tom Colicchio. So when you hit me with $2,000 in fines and send another inspector a few weeks later and I get another $1,000 in fines, what am I going to do?" Mr. Mateo said."

But at least business is good someplace: "Last year, the city collected $32.9 million, up from $27.8 million in the previous year and $17.3 million in fiscal year 2006. The figures don't include fines levied against food vendors." But, as we have seen, those vendor fines aren't being paid-try that if you own a restaurant. How fast can you say, "Hand over your license, sucker."

In the process, the ticket blitz has become an avalanche: "The number of violations issued has seen a similar rise. City officials issued 37,326 violations to food establishments in fiscal year 2010, up from 21,679 five years earlier. The increase in fines manifests itself every day in the form of a crowded, chaotic scene at the administrative tribunal where restaurant owners—or their paid expeditors—go to contest violations. "People get there before they open; it's like they're waiting for Shakespeare in the Park tickets, Mr. Mateo quipped."

But pity the poor peddler? The Bloomberg administration has declared war against the city's restaurants and green grocers, and we are struggling to hear the hue and cry: "The city's controversial grading system launched in late July. During inspections, food establishments are given violation points related to cleanliness and food-safety practices; the lower the score, the better the grade. But whereas inspections used to average once a year, now a majority of restaurants will receive at least three."

And those millions of dollars in fines means less folks employed as restaurants struggle to remain profitable-all the while we are increasing the payroll and pension costs of an army of added inspectors. To get an idea how clueless the city is, just listen to the DOH bureaucrat: "Daniel Kass, the department's deputy commissioner of environmental health, said the spike in money collected during the last fiscal year was due to an increase in inspections in anticipation of the new grading system...Mr. Kass said the department has hired 25 additional inspectors this year, with plans to hire another 25. Of charges that the city is taxing business owners, he said, "It's just not true, taxes are levied on everyone. These are fines or fees that are based entirely on the performance of a restaurant and it's in the power of every restaurant to avoid fines."

That is what is known as a bald faced lie: "But restaurant owners say the inspections are arbitrary, with different inspectors looking at different things. Owners scramble to address violations that sometimes aren't even checked by a second different inspector weeks later, they say." When the goal is revenue collection-and the inspector brigade is paid from the proceeds of the extortion-there is no avoiding the extortionists.

We'll give Rafael Mateo the last word on this Kafkaesque regulatory assault: "Mr. Mateo, the owner of Pata Negra, said he scrambled to fix his dishwasher and a sliding door after his first inspection, spending $600 to break a wall and attach a weight to the door so it would be self-closing. "I broke my brains out for two days," he said. Mr. Mateo paid his fines at the tribunal before the second inspector's visit. The second inspector paid no attention to the changes, he said, and found numerous other violations, including a cook wearing a bandana and having inadequate nutritional information on his bread. His next tribunal date is Jan. 3."