McLennan County has three years to correct more than 350 violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act, ranging from doors that are too heavy to a lack of handicap-accessible seating, according to a recently approved report from the U.S. Department of Justice.
How much those repairs will cost is still unknown, and deadlines for the work range from three months to 30 months.
The 145-page agreement details violations by room and by county building, along with the required action and completion date.
Projects vary from jury boxes needing wheelchair access, to restroom signs mounted on a door instead of a wall, to a lack of signage and parking, and a lack of assistive listening systems in the courtrooms. The Department of Justice also reviewed county programs and services, polling locations, the county’s emergency management and disaster prevention policies, and the sheriff’s department’s policies and procedures.
County-owned buildings fall under 1991 ADA standards or 2010 ADA standards depending on when they were built or last improved.
The agreement has been finalized, but the official countdown clock will start next week when the Department of Justice gives its final signature.
The agreement comes after the Department of Justice surveyed county properties in 2011. By 2014, the Department of Justice presented its report back to county leaders, who have since negotiated the final settlement.
County Administrator Dustin Chapman said it appears the Department of Justice selected McLennan County at random for the initial review.
People might view the investigation as a bad thing for the county, but the work will only improve residents’ access, Chapman said. And through the entire process, the county has had a good working relationship with Department of Justice officials, he said.
The McLennan County Courthouse and the Extraco Events Center fairgrounds and coliseum have the biggest violations, Chapman said.
Keeping renovations in line with both the ADA and the McLennan County Historical Commission’s standards has presented a challenge, Chapman said.
“Anytime you’re dealing with an historic building you just have to take all that into account,” Chapman said.
Many of the issues at the courthouse are relatively minor but are compounded by the age of the building, he said. Several doors in the building have inaccessible knob hardware, according to the report.
“A lot of the hardware is actually original to the building,” Chapman said.
Commissioner Ben Perry said his first concern is ensuring the county is accessible to everyone.
“Then you do have concerns at what costs will we have to comply with this,” Perry said, adding he hadn’t yet gone through the report in detail.
Perry said he’s pushing for county staff to give commissioners a rough budget for improvements.
Perry said he doesn’t want the ADA repairs to become another “big financial hickey” and spending problem like the courthouse roof color restoration a few years ago. Perry said long before he was on the court, commissioners entered into a $750,000 roofing project that ended up costing the county about $3 million.
“I don’t want to see that. The taxpayers deserve better,” Perry said. “They just kept pouring money into it without having a budget. Somewhere we do need to sit down and say ‘This is a rough idea of what we think it’s going to cost.’ ”
Chapman said the county has a budget item with a $1 placeholder where all ADA-related work will be kept.
Projects were prioritized during the negotiation process to allow work the county could do on its own to be completed first, with later deadlines for work that will have to be contracted, Chapman said.
Range of deadlines
The more than 350 listed violations have varying completion dates ranging from three months to 30 months, according to the report.
The county has three months to fix two items; six months to fix 40; 12 months to fix 60; 18 months to fix almost 30; and 30 months to fix 30 items.
The bulk of the work — more than 200 items — must be completed in two years from the date of the agreement.
“We are fairly confident we can get it all done in that three-year window,” Chapman said.
The report covers more than 20 buildings, including justice of the peace offices, the Extraco Events Center, the Jack Harwell Detention Center, and the sheriff’s office, among others.
Problems that need addressing in six months include doors to restrooms in the justice of the peace Precinct 8 office requiring six pounds of force to open, and space in front of the telephone being inaccessible because it has a 17-inch-wide clear floor space blocked by a fixed bench at the Jack Harwell Detention Center.
The sheriff’s office’s elevator has an inaccessible emergency call system which the agreement gives the county 18 months to fix.
The county has a year to create two wheelchair seating options in the commissioners courtroom. Commissioners have two years to address the fact the law library on the fourth floor of the courthouse is only accessible by steps. Tradinghouse Reservoir Park lacks accessible parking and an accessible route to the covered pavilion. Each project must be addressed within 30 months.
Part of the settlement includes the county retaining an independent licensed architect to certify whether alterations comply with ADA requirements. Commissioners on Oct. 6 retained The Wallace Group, Inc., and will pay them monthly for work done on a hourly basis.
Even though most of the polling locations during election season are not county owned, the Department of Justice holds the county responsible if those structures don’t meet ADA requirements. The county has two months to request that each of the polling place owners and operators correct ADA violations within nine months of the agreement.
Kathy Van Wolfe, McLennan County elections administrator, said elections officials are still digesting information from the report.
Wolfe said there are many areas of the community where there aren’t options for polling locations. She said they try to find a community center or church that is accessible to everyone and large enough to accommodate voters.
If a polling location needs a new sign in the parking lot, that’s an easy fix, she said. The concern comes with changes that will be larger, and if all that work will come out of the county’s elections budget, she said.
“The bad thing is, in some areas of town there’s not a whole lot of choices,” Wolfe said about polling locations. “We don’t want everything in the city of Waco.”
Some of the required improvements include improved parking signage at Axtell Elementary School, Brazos Meadows Baptist Church, Multi-Purpose Center and H.G. Isbill Junior High; an improved ramp at McLennan Community College and Tennyson Middle School; and additional handicap parking at the Bellmead Civic Center, First United Methodist Church, First Baptist Church, Mart Community Center and Lacey Lakeview Civic Center.
The document also includes a detailed description on how to select a polling location by evaluating the physical accessibility, including measuring slopes, door openings and the force required to open a door.
Waco Independent School District spokesman Dale Caffey said he believes renovations to Tennyson Middle School were done after the Department of Justice evaluated the school as part of the county’s agreement. Several parts of the school have been remodeled in the past two to three years, he said.
“Schools are the hubs of the community and we want Tennyson to remain a polling place,” Caffey said. “We’ll do whatever necessary within reason for it to remain a voting location. But we are ADA compliant.”