Complying with federal Americans with Disabilities Act regulations means county and municipal officials have to step outside their comfort zones and put themselves in the shoes of a handicapped person, according to Baldwin County Administrator Ron Cink.
“You have to think about some of the things we take for granted,” Cink said. “I can walk up to a door and pull it open, but a lot of people can’t do that. They have to push a button. You have to think about the places where people might encounter obstacles you wouldn’t normally think of.”
With nearly 90 public buildings in its possession, the Baldwin County Commission is approximately 60 percent to 70 percent compliant with current federal regulations related to the ADA, according to Cink, whose responsibilities include serving as the county’s ADA coordinator. Because the county receives federal funding for programs like the Baldwin Regional Area Transit System, it must comply with ADA regulations to continue receiving federal funding.
Cink said the county contracted with an architect to review its buildings and potential problem areas. The county set aside $200,000 to upgrade 38 of its facilities, with fixes ranging from widening doors and adding handicap parking to installing ramps and handrails. Some of its buildings are too old to be upgraded without demolishing them, but Cink said the county has spent real money and made great strides to make sure all of its locations are accessible.
“We make accommodations wherever possible,” Cink said. “Some of our buildings would need to be torn down, and I think the federal government understands we aren’t going to be able to do that to comply. But we’ve made a real effort.”
Cink said most of the work has been performed by county maintenance staff. With the help and recommendations of Baldwin County Board of Education member David Cox, the county installed ramps in the commission chambers in Bay Minette and Robertsdale ahead of two joint meetings of the commission and the BCBE last year.
Because the majority of the commission’s meetings are public, the county must ensure all of its meeting places are fully accessible, Cink said.
According to Cink, subdivisions in the county must meet ADA standards for curbs and sidewalks. Ramps, such as those installed at county buildings, must have a 12-degree slope, as must fishing piers at Live Oak Landing. The county also provides written help for those with limited English proficiency who use its facilities, and streams all commission meetings online with closed captioning to aid the hearing impaired.
“Anything the public has access to must also be accessible for handicapped persons,” Cink said. “We have to continue to look at new ways to help them.”
Now, member municipalities of the Eastern Shore Metropolitan Planning Organization are being asked to develop their own ADA compliance transition plans.
In a July 20, 2015, letter from the Alabama Department of Transportation to ESMPO coordinator Sarah Hart, the state instructed all member municipalities to devise ADA compliance transition plans in order to continue receiving federal dollars for transportation projects through the ESMPO. The Federal Highway Administration now requires compliance with the ADA as well as with the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 in order to receive federal funds.
According to the letter, ESMPO members must present proof of compliant transition plans. Without fully compliant transition plans, the ESMPO itself could be considered noncompliant and its ability to complete projects in its Transportation Improvement Plan would be in jeopardy.
“I think all municipalities which receive federal money will eventually have to comply, but because these cities are members of the ESMPO they were notified first,” Hart said. “Our members have to survey their public rights-of-way and buildings for ADA compliance, then put together a plan for how they will fix whatever issues they have in the future.”
County Commissioner Chris Elliott, who sits on the ESMPO policy board with fellow Commissioner Tucker Dorsey, said the process has not been as “arduous” as he expected.
“It is already covered in the law, it is already in our building codes,” Elliott said. “In some cases, we have to retrofit some buildings, but a lot of the work is already done. We have always complied with the laws; the federal government is just asking for a more comprehensive look at our compliance.”
In December, the Fairhope City Council selected Engineering Design Technologies Inc. to ensure the city complies with federal ADA regulations. EDT is a firm with locations in Daphne, Birmingham, Huntsville and a handful of other East Coast cities. The firm’s Daphne location is run by Lawrence Wilson, a former engineer for Baldwin County.
“Going forward, any projects in our corporate limits must have a survey and ADA compliance plan for how we will comply going forward,” Mayor Tim Kant said. “If we are going to get any money for signalization on Highway 98, the federal government is not going to fund anything without this plan. Anything dealing with the ADA, we have to comply.”
According to Kant, the chairman of ESMPO’s policy board, the federal government has begun issuing letters to municipalities about ADA enforcement, and the city of Fairhope is no exception — recently receiving letters regarding its sidewalks, traffic lights and public beach sites and various other areas.
Hart said the process could be lengthy for municipalities, but most members have been receptive to the new requirements.
“Our municipalities have been good so far about hitting the ground running and appointing coordinators and engineers,” Hart said. “I feel lucky because some other MPOs statewide have not had as much cooperation.”
According to Hart, ESMPO members have until Jan. 20 to hire a consultant or to decide to perform the survey in house. The ESMPO policy board will meet for a work session Jan. 20 and its regular meeting is Jan. 27 at Daphne City Hall.
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