Thursday, September 22, 2011

Is It Fairness or Another Drain On the Taxpayers Dollar

Picked Up from the Rockville Patch

Montgomery County is the newest jurisdiction to enter into an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to bring its facilities into compliance with Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, an undertaking with an uncertain, but hefty, price tag.

County attorney Marc Hansen briefed Montgomery County Council members on the agreement, bringing up questions of funding and capital improvement priorities.

The agreement with the Department of Justice is the result of a five-year process, beginning with a DOJ audit of how well the county is meeting accessibility requirements for its residents with disabilities. Since 2000, DOJ has entered into similar agreements with other 180 local governments.

"Montgomery County has been a leader in compliance with the ADA, and the agreement recognizes that," Hansen said, including a Commission on People with Disabilities, a sidewalk accessibility plan, and text telephones (TTY) in 911 facilities and police stations.

But the 1,000-page document also outlines improvements that have to be made big and small, from ensuring wheelchair access into buildings to adjusting the height of light switches.

"This is a very significant effort," Hansen said. "And unfortunately, it's an unfunded mandate. The burden is significant."

The DOJ audited 110 county-owned or county-used facilities, finding an estimated $20 million in needed improvements. Some are already funded in the county's six-year Capital Improvement Program.

The agreement also requires the county to survey another 479 facilities over the next two years to catalog ADA compliance issues for improvements.

"What these other facilities are going to cost, we don't know," Hansen said. "It's a huge question mark that's going to hang over the (Capital Improvement Program) budget."

With a new six-year CIP due from County Executive Isiah Leggett in January, an already strained budget could get tighter, especially with Leggett's view that the budget should downsize, given the sluggish economic recovery.

"We're committed to doing what we've said we'll do in the agreement," Leggett spokesman Patrick Lacefield said. "We're still in the information-gathering stage. We have a lot to do in a lot of different areas, but we have to stay true to what we've said we’ll do."

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