"In some of these places, it was just atrocious," he said.

Scott first started thinking about a grading system in Baltimore after visiting family in North Carolina two years ago, he said. A statewide grading system there — systems have been implemented in numerous states, cities and counties nationwide, to mixed reviews — impressed him, he said, and he saw a similar system being a solution in Baltimore.

"This isn't something we're going to rush into," he said, pointing out that Baltimore's health department will have the benefit of looking at systems elsewhere and learning from their mistakes. "This is something we're going to have to work on over months, maybe six to 12 months."

Ryan O'Doherty, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake, said the mayor's administration supports the bill with amendments proposed by the city's health and legal departments.

Casey Jenkins, owner of Darker Than Blue in Waverly, said he would have no problem with a grading system. Many restaurant owners in the city already hold themselves to the health standards on which they are inspected, he said, and a grading system would only reinforce that.

"It's going to be another tool to make us transparent," he said. "I think it's going to be a tool to hold us up to our standards."

But Jenkins questioned how the program would be paid for, echoing concerns from Furman and Thompson that the program will force restaurant license fees to be increased to pay for more inspectors.

"Our licenses just went up last year by a couple dollars, and they're fairly expensive licenses already," said Jenkins, who said he pays $530 a year for his food-handling license.

Thompson said the restaurant grading system implemented in New York City cost $5 million and forced the city to hire 50 new inspectors. It also kept inspectors busy responding to requests for re-evaluations from restaurant owners with low grades, instead of responding to the worst offenders, Thompson said.

An outside study of the New York system this year by a group of academics, including Daniel E. Ho, a Stanford University law professor, found inconsistencies with how the grades were assigned. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has said the program decreased food-borne illnesses and increased overall restaurant revenue.

Haller said Baltimore is not New York, which has some 24,000 restaurants, so there will be differences in New York's program cost and Baltimore's. But it is too early to predict whether Baltimore's program will require more city funding or resources, she said.

"We don't have a system yet, so I can't say whether or not it would require us to have more inspectors, but the idea is that it would just be part of our existing inspection process," Haller said. The number of inspectors in Baltimore has recently fluctuated, but there are currently 13, Haller said.

Haller said the health department supports the concept of "transparent government" in general and believes the grading system will improve communication between the department and city residents.

"We feel that we can provide better transparency into the inspections, what we're writing down, what kind of violations are being found, and what our inspectors are doing, so that people can see, including the restaurant owners, that it's an even playing field," Haller said.

krector@baltsun.com

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