Veterans’ groups struggle due to high city fees

By Joe Anuta

Leaders of veterans’ organizations in the borough said they are being crippled by permits and violations from the city, which have put one Queens post’s parade in jeopardy and caused another to cut down on events.

The American Legion Post in Forest Hills has been crippled by violations from the city Department of Health, according to Gene Burch, the house chairman there.

The post on Metropolitan Avenue has a bar on the ground floor and a kitchen downstairs where there is also a small meeting hall.

Vets were allowed to smoke in the bar upstairs after the post obtained a permit as a private club.

But because the club has an ice machine, which the city considers a food, the organization is required to have a food handler’s license, according to Burch.

On the DOH’s letter grade database, the legion is listed under restaurants, even though only members are allowed to purchase drinks at the bar, according to Burch.

“Are we a private club?” Burch asked. “If you give us a smoking permit, we are a private club. Now we are a food establishment.”

Burch said the post currently owes about $2,900 in violations. Some are standard violations, like for insects that the inspectors found in various places throughout the building.

But the private establishment was also hit with fines for not having a padlock on its ice maker and not opening a gun cabinet containing rifles for a DOH inspector.

State Sen. Joseph Addabbo (D-Howard Beach) was so incensed with the way the veterans’ organizations were being treated by the city that he scheduled a sitdown with several agencies late last month and hopes the city will instead allow them to correct the violations instead of paying fines.

“The monetary violations are adding up and some of the posts are saying they could shut down,” he said.

The violations were so cumbersome that Burch said the post had to stop holding simple egg breakfasts for vets on weekends.

The DOH maintained that it is in the right to inspect the post.

“The American Legion in Forest Hills is required to have a food service establishment permit, just like any other place that serves food or drink to the public or its members,” according to DOH.

In 2009, DOH issued them a permit, however, it expired on April 30, 2011. In order to renew it, they will need to pay outstanding fines, according to the DOH

The post’s smoking license also expired in Jan. 31, 2011, the DOH said.

Vet organizations are also being hobbled by so-called place of assembly permits. Up until about 2009, veterans’ organizations — like the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion or the Jewish War Veterans — were exempt from paying the permits, which are issued by the city to make sure any space where 70 or more people congregate is safe, according to one post commander in Queens, who did not want to name the specific organization where he volunteers.

The city Department of Buildings lists the initial cost of a place of assembly permit as $235, but he and other organizations said they spend about $500 a year on place of assembly permits.

For the Queens post, it eats into a significant portion of dues paid by his members, which he uses just to cover utilities.

The post typically helped fund a parade in the borough, but the city’s fees have taken their toll.

“The parade will go the way of everything else,” he said. “It will disappear.”

But a civic leader said small organizations should have their fee waived.

“It is a constant burden on the small businesses and the nonprofits. If you want to do a fee for that, go after the organizations that can fund-raise,” said Gene Kelty, of Community Board 7.

Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at januta@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.

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