Handicapped access concerns the town

Handicapped access problems — wheelchair ramps, elevators, bathrooms, door widths — haven’t been ignored by Ridgefield, but they haven’t been dealt with systematically and comprehensively. And the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, has been on the books since July 1990. It’s 2017 — time, town officials admit, to get going.

“I think everyone understands the logic behind this,” said Don Ciota, chairman of the Commission for the Disabled.

A serious ADA initiative starts with a self-assessment, leading to a transition plan, followed by years of work, construction projects doing what needs to be done, based on a prioritized list the town may periodically amend.

“The ADA law provides that towns will do a self-assessment,” Ciota said. “Twenty-five years ago they realized this was a lot of information for a town to absorb, so they said you do a self-assessment, and the self-assessment leads to a transition plan. And the transition plan spells out what needs to be done to bring the town into compliance.

“The self-assessment is something that goes into the entire physical inventory of the town, but it’s not limited to that. It also discusses all the programs the town has: where people vote, the fields and recreational facilities, the streets and sidewalks. Public meetings, any points of assembly, if there’s a concert in the park — all these sorts of things are assessed,” Ciota said.

“The Board of Education has agreed to participate in this, which is a very nice cooperation between the town and Board of Education,” he said.

“If there’s a problem with the schools, eventually it comes back to the taxpayers to resolve the issue. Ultimately the school system will have to make decisions as to how they move forward, how they accept this plan and how it will be paid for.”

Town officials considered having town employees do the assessment, but the task seemed daunting.

First Selectman Rudy Marconi asked the Commission on the Disabled to get some “preliminary” figures on the cost of having a consultant do an assessment so it “could be included in future budget discussions,” Ciota said.

“Although we are seeking a cost estimate, we do not have one as of yet,” Ciota said Dec. 29.

In December the commission sponsored a presentation by Betsy Allen, the ADA coordinator of Somerville, Mass.

With a population of 77,000 — roughly three times Ridgefield’s — squeezed into 4.3 square miles, Somerville has an annual budget of $180 million, compared to Ridgefield’s $139 million.

“When they did this assessment they determined it would cost $84 million to do all the changes necessary,” Ciota said. “The way that town is handling it, is they’re budgeting approximately $3 million a year to remedy these situations as they go along.”

To do an assessment, the commission hopes to contract with the Institute for Human Centered Design, which gave town personnel ADA assessment training last summer, and did the Somerville study.

They don’t know how much it will cost. Somerville paid “in the low to mid six-figure range,” Ciota said, but “the Somerville studies seemed to have been done in an exhaustive manner and may not be indicative of what Ridgefield may be quoted.

“Remember, it’s a city that has three times our population,” he said.

Schools will be included, but with the costs separated.

“Virtually all the buildings have been built prior to the beginning of the ADA. It doesn’t mean that every building is not in compliance — that there are problems with everything — but there may be things that need improvement,” Ciota said.

“The complaints I’ve heard from mothers with the school system are access to the hallways, the entrances to the buildings, access between floors, access to recreation areas.”

Practical, usable handicapped parking is a concern — “having a space that a parent can unload a wheelchair-accessible van,” he said.

While the assessment and the work to follow will have financial costs, not doing them could be more costly.

“There’s no such thing as the ADA police. No one is going to come in and start examining our ADA accessibility — unless there’s a complaint. It’s a complaint-triggered law,” Ciota said.

When a complaint or an accident occurs, federal authorities investigate.

“If an investigation begins, and you don’t have your assessment and your transition plan, and there are things that are obviously non-compliant, there could be dire consequences for the town,” Ciota said. “The federal government could essentially dictate what has to be fixed and demand that it be done immediately, regardless of cost.

“Unlike studies we want to do in town — like parking, or retail — this isn’t something we do because it’s a whim,” Ciota said. “This is something we do because it’s a requirement for the Americans with Disabilities Act.”