A hefty bill is looming for McLennan County as county attorneys and the U.S. Department of Justice have nearly completed negotiations to resolve violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act.
County commissioners Tuesday approved the settlement agreement, which returns to the federal government for final signature before the clock starts ticking on deadlines to bring the county into compliance.
The detailed and itemized repair list includes projects that will take only a few weeks, and some that will take up to a year to complete, said Waco attorney Mike Dixon, who represents McLennan County and its officeholders.
In 2011, the Department of Justice performed a survey of county properties and in the summer of 2014 presented its report. Since that time, county lawyers have worked with federal officials to address each issue and find a solution, Dixon said.
“We worked hard to reach agreements that did save the county money but achieved accessibility,” Dixon said.
County leaders do not yet have a grasp on how improvements to accessibility will impact the budget.
“It’s going to cost a lot,” Dixon said. “It would be way too early to estimate at this time, but it’s going to be expensive.”
How to tackle the projects and how to pay for them is the next big step for the county, County Judge Scott Felton said. It is unlikely the county will have to fund all the work in fiscal year 2016, which begins Thursday, but it could be spread out.
There are smaller projects that can start immediately, including parking lot striping, Felton said. But there will be actions that require more decisions, including purchasing a chair lift for the courthouse to accommodate elevation changes, he said.
Commissioner Ben Perry said the costs will begin to reveal themselves as county leaders learn contractors’ prices, adjustments needed, and which violations require engineering work or architectural plans.
“We truly, truly don’t have an idea of what we’re looking at yet,” Perry said. “Absolutely none, and that’s what (is) scary,”
Perry said because of the looming costs to become ADA-compliant, commissioners were cautious during the budget talks for fiscal year 2016.
Felton said he hopes the projects don’t force the county to incur debt, especially after the court worked so hard to pay off debt not so long ago. County commissioners in August agreed to pay off $5.9 million in debt in the fiscal year 2016 budget.
Felton said ADA compliance is an example of why the county should continue to build up its fund balance to handle similar situations.
Not all the required changes are physical — some include program changes and adoptions of policies and training.
Commissioner Will Jones said Dixon and Dustin Chapman, the county’s legal counsel, did the county a great service over the past year in negotiations to ensure the county fixes any accessibility problems economically. Jones said the duo helped save the county almost $10 million by negotiating to create a new policy allowing all handicap inmates to be housed in the Jack Harwell Detention Center, which is already ADA-compliant, rather than the county jails, which are not.
Dixon said the settlement also covers property not owned by the county, including polling locations. There are voting centers that do not meet the ADA requirements, many of which are located in offices of nonprofit groups, which likely cannot afford improvements.
Changes range from adding signage to more extensive work, including adding handicap-accessible seating at the Heart O’ Texas Fairground, Dixon said.
“I think that’s probably one of the issues that’s common across all of the buildings. There’s at least one bathroom issue,” Dixon said.
Dixon said every commissioners court meeting to come during the next few months likely will require an approval by commissioners for an ADA-mandated expense as the county works toward becoming compliant.