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February 28, 2004

Disability act snags resolved

From: St. Petersburg Times, FL - Feb 28, 2004

The county and the Sheriff's Office agree to make upgrades for the disabled sought by the Justice Department.


Citrus County government and the Sheriff's Office are under federal pressure to better serve disabled residents and comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

U.S. Department of Justice officials announced Friday that they will help the county agencies resolve the problems through an agreement, which avoids any possibility of the federal government suing the county on behalf of disabled residents here.

The settlement agreement is part of the Justice Department's "Project Civic Access," which has helped almost 70 local governments nationwide comply with the wide-ranging disabilities act.

Essentially, the Justice Department provides local governments, such as Citrus County, with expertise and legal advice on how to improve access to public buildings, sidewalks, parks, bathrooms and so on, for the disabled.

Why did the Justice Department began investigating Citrus? County officials said the department received a complaint about a year and a half ago that county government and the Sheriff's Office were not in compliance with Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

But in a Dec. 3 letter to Sheriff Jeff Dawsy, Justice investigator Ame Eduardo said Citrus County was part of a department project in which cities, towns and counties nationwide were randomly chosen to determine compliance with the ADA.

Emergency preparedness plans, 911 services and law enforcement programs and services were reviewed.

Regardless how the probe started, the investigation included Justice Department officials visiting some of the county's buildings and asking for information on how the county ensures that it meets the needs of the disabled, said Tom Dick, the county's assistant public works director.

After its investigation, Dick said, Justice Department officials were planning on sending the county a long list of ADA problems involving the county, Sheriff's Office and the Supervisor of Elections Office. But when told that each of the agencies fell under separate elected offices, the Justice Department separated its list of concerns.

The settlement agreement between the Sheriff's Office and the Justice Department as part of Project Civic Access is believed to be the first of the federal government's actions, Dick said, and the county is awaiting its own agreement.

Both the federal government and Citrus County view the agreements as a positive step to help county agencies redress problems. By entering into the agreement, the county also sidesteps future lawsuits from the federal government.

The complaint that Justice received alleged that the county's emergency preparedness plan does not provide for an evacuation procedure for people with disabilities, and that emergency shelters do not allow residents to be accompanied by necessary service animals, such as seeing-eye dogs.

There is also a laundry list of seemingly minor infractions that the federal government has pointed out within the Sheriff's Office, which receives some Justice Department funding, and buildings, which are owned by Citrus County.

Corrections the Sheriff's Office has agreed to make include:

Restrooms need to be marked as disabled accessible, paper-towel dispensers need to be lowered and toilet seats are too high.

Within one month, a text telephone device (TTD) needs to be installed at every sheriff's station or substation.

Within two months, the Sheriff's Office must distribute policies to its staff on how to deal with the hearing impaired and find local qualified oral or sign language interpreters to have on-call at all times.

Within three months, the Sheriff's Office must ensure that at least one emergency shelter has a backup refrigerator for medication, and emergency electrical outlets for life-sustaining medical devices and power-wheelchairs, ensure that people who use service animals, like seeing-eye dogs, are not separated from their animals when they are using emergency shelters.

Within four months, the Sheriff's Office must develop a two-hour training program on the requirements of the ADA for employees.

Within five months, all emergency shelters should be fully accessible to the disabled.

Within six months, some Sheriff's Office disabled parking spots need to be marked as accessible to vans with chairlifts, and service counters throughout the Sheriff's Office must be lowered.

Within one year, it must properly train employees to better serve disabled customers.

The Sheriff's Office has taken action on some of the complaints, federal records show.

The Emergency Operations Center, which receives 911 calls, has a TTD at each dispatch station and employees are trained on how to use text telephone services every six months. The office was scheduled to obtain technology that could communicate using computers, as well.

Sheriff's spokeswoman Gail Tierney said many of the issues already have been corrected, but she was unable to specify late Friday afternoon which requirements the agency still needs to address.

"It has been an ongoing effort on our part in terms of putting ourselves in compliance with the issues that were raised in that settlement agreement," Tierney said.

"We're on the timeline and should have everything taken care of and in compliance by the time limits set."

Citrus County, for its part, has begun making corrections to Sheriff's Office buildings and to its own, Dick said.

He expects the county to sign its own Project Civic Access settlement agreement with the Justice Department to help correct problems plaguing county government.

Dick said much of the improvements needed can be made within the county's $75,000 a year budget that it earmarks for ADA improvements to county buildings.

"We look at this being a positive thing," Dick said. "Project Civic Access is something that we take seriously in the county, and we'd like to comply with all things that the DOJ thinks that we're falling short of."

According to Census 2000, Citrus County has 31,729 disabled residents older than 5.

- Staff writer Colleen Jenkins contributed to this report.

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