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Feds rap Medford over ADA rules

Jerry Smith braced himself for a mishap as he maneuvered his wheelchair around uneven and missing sidewalks in Medford.

On Wednesday, the 71-year-old's wheel jammed briefly as he tried to power over a gravel section onto the concrete lip of a sidewalk at the corner of Stewart and Riverside avenues.

Five years ago, he complained to the city that it was out of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Smith said a lack of sidewalks in some areas, uneven sidewalks, insufficient wheelchair ramps at intersections and other problems make it difficult for the disabled to make their way around.

"I'm very upset with the city of Medford," Smith said.

Partly as a result of Smith's complaints to federal officials, the city is gearing up to spend millions of dollars to comply with ADA rules over the coming years.

On July 1, Federal Highway Administration officials sent the city a letter saying it did not have a consistent policy for the disabled and that many streets and sidewalks are out of compliance.

The FHA reviewed sidewalks and curb ramps around the City Hall area and the Medford library.

"The review revealed areas which did not have sidewalks (e.g. by the service center) and areas where there are no curb ramps. The review also revealed that some sidewalks were too narrow to allow satisfactory passage (less than three feet wide) but the majority of areas and sites meet ADA standards," the letter stated.

In response to the letter and other concerns, the city is developing a multiyear plan to transition the city into full compliance with ADA laws.

A letter from the city to the FHA Oct. 26 vowed "to correct the identified deficiencies."

FHA officials found the city didn't have a survey of curb ramps and sidewalks required under the ADA.

The city did prepare a transition plan in 1992, but the review found that outdated plan failed to identify physical obstacles at City Hall and the service center. The plan also fails to specify a schedule for improvements. In fact, the review found, "the city's staff indicated that all improvements had been completed."

This year, the city has spent $678,000, or 39 percent of its street maintenance budget, to install 188 ADA-approved disabled ramps that transition the sidewalks at intersections. The city could spend up to $1 million next year for more sidewalk ramps that are used by people in wheelchairs, the blind, the elderly and mothers with babies in strollers.

As a result of the ramp improvements, the city expects to have less money for street maintenance going forward.

Medford parks officials estimate compliance with ADA rules will cost $680,250. Bear Creek Park would need $128,500 to bring it into compliance.

To comply with ADA requirements, the city plans to review 500 miles of street curbs, 5,000 intersections and 15,000 corners over the next five years, according to the letter it sent to federal highway officials. The city will look at the ADA compatibility of 546,000 square feet of facilities, including City Hall.

The city vowed to obtain additional training for its ADA coordinator, Bonnie Huard. The council this year passed a resolution affirming its intent to comply with the ADA. A dedicated phone number at the city is now available for ADA compliance complaints: 541-774-2074.

One of the recommendations in the review is that the city revise its grievance procedure complaint form so it can be readily usable for persons with disabilities.

Huard, who will be making a short presentation about the issue Thursday to the City Council, said she doesn't know why the city didn't have an adequate transition plan in the past.

"The city has completed a lot of ADA work over the years," she said. However, the work was not being coordinated under an action plan approved by federal officials, she said.

"I think the city needs to broaden its approach to reach every area of ADA requirements," Huard said.

The city likely will prioritize intersections and sidewalks that need ADA work done as quickly as possible, particularly near transit routes.

Huard said it's difficult to calculate how much will be spent on these improvements because they involve so many city departments, and the city has so many roads and buildings that will need to be examined.

"The city hopes to get an agreement on an action plan after review with the highway administration," Huard said. She said she expected an action plan to be in place in the near future.

"The whole point is to avoid discrimination with people with disabilities," she said.

She said the city already issues citations to residents whose cars block sidewalks.

Smith, who has neurological disorders including myasthenia gravis and Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, said the city should have taken these steps 25 years ago.

Other disabled people, including the blind, face a number of obstacles, including signs that block sidewalks, sharp drop-offs next to sidewalks and a lack of rubber pads on curb ramps.

Smith said it's difficult for him to walk, and he said he's fallen a few times in Medford, so he mostly tries to get around on his wheelchair.

Smith has appeared before the council to complain that some people park their vehicles on sidewalks, which makes it difficult for the disabled to get around.

"If I parked my car and blocked the street, I'd probably get arrested," he said. "But the city says, 'Would you please move your car off the sidewalk?' "

He said he doesn't believe the city has done enough to help the disabled community over the years.

"The city of Medford to this day is resisting the ADA and is not happy with disabled people," he said. "The politics of this have been overwhelmingly against the disabled people."

Councilor Dick Gordon said he doesn't agree that the city has something against providing access for the disabled.

"I don't think the city has ignored it," he said. "It's obviously an issue that the city is addressing."

In particular, he cited a 397-page ADA transition plan Medford Parks and Recreation has prepared.

In addition, some of the older ramps don't meet the current federal standards, he said. He said some older ramps have been torn out for road projects and have been replaced using old federal standards.

It's an issue the city is addressing, and it is something the city will ultimately spend a lot of money to fix, potentially millions of dollars, he said.

"The city has a lot of priorities, and this is one of the priorities," Gordon said.

He said it will be difficult for the city to come up with the dollars to make the improvements, adding that possible ways to raise money include bonding, raising street fees or just letting streets deteriorate.

"Or maybe there's a happy medium that will work," he said.

Gordon said the city, its citizens and utility companies who do work in the streets all need to be educated about the ADA issue.

"Basically, it's the right thing to do," he said.

— Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.

Jerry Smith of Medford points out a sidewalk at Riverside and Stewart avenues that could be dangerous for wheelchair users. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch