Colorado Springs is on the hook for tens of millions of dollars after the city settled a second lawsuit in six months over its shortcomings in complying with state and federal accessibility standards.
Although the city department responsible for complying with the Americans with Disability Act has historically been understaffed and underfunded, Mayor John Suthers said he’s confident the city can handle the cost of installing 15,000 curb ramps throughout the city over 14 years. Others, though, aren’t so sure the city can come up with the money.
The class-action lawsuit was filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Denver and settled Thursday morning.
“We had no choice,” Suthers said of the settlement. “We would not have won a lawsuit.”
The brevity of the lawsuit stems from more than two years of investigation and negotiation between the city and the plaintiffs, said attorney Tim Fox, who represents the Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center. The center and Campins Benham-Baker represent two individual plaintiffs and all others with different access needs.
Under the agreement, the city must install at least 1,100 curb ramps annually for the next 14 years, conduct a comprehensive survey of all its intersections with sidewalks and conduct yearly accessibility training program for employees responsible for road and sidewalk planning, design, construction or inspection. The settlement agreement, obtained by The Gazette, acknowledges that the work will likely cost “tens of millions of dollars.”
The vast majority of that construction work could be covered by revenue from 2C, a 0.62 percent sales tax approved by voters in 2015 to fund road repairs throughout the city, Suthers said.
City Council members, who approve the annual budget, have their doubts 2C money will be so readily available.
Suthers’ confidence relies on several assumptions, the first being that 2C will be renewed. The tax was approved with a five-year sunset and city officials have said they plan to ask voters for another five years in 2020 at a lower rate of 0.57 percent.
If voters approve another five years of 2C, the tax would still have to be renewed another two times to last the duration of the city’s settlement.
Councilman Don Knight said even at a lower rate, the tax is still anticipated to net the city some $55 million annually. But it’s limited to certain uses.
Council President Pro Tem Jill Gaebler acknowledged that 2C could cover some, but not all, of the more than 15,000 curb ramps.
“There’s no magical funding source,” Knight said. “We’re going to be looking for every pot of money that we can legitimately, I’ll stress legitimate, use to do this.”
If a sidewalk near a park is needing a ramp, Knight said perhaps the city’s parks budget could then cover that work. But the city must be deliberate and accurate in that approach. The work must be considered on a “ramp-by-ramp basis,” he said.
But the two-year survey and annual training cannot be covered by 2C. Knight said.
“Whatever the other funds don’t do will come out of the general fund,” Knight said. “And there’s only X amount of dollars in there.”
If voters extend 2C another five years, the work could then extend to the city’s residential streets, Knight said. Crews on existing projects already ensure sidewalks and streets are in compliance with accessibility standards.
City inspectors are charged with ensuring new development meets those standards as well.
“We’re not just going to trust the developers,” Knight said. “We’re going to go out and look at them.”
That’s where Colorado Springs failed in the past, Knight said. Now the city is in the painful but necessary position of having to do it retroactively.
“This is a must-pay bill,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how you feel, it’s a fact of life.”
Gaebler said ensuring the city ‘s streets and sidewalks are accessible to all residents is the right thing to do and it’s a better than paying civil fines or an expensive court judgment.
The now-mandatory work was inevitable one way or the other, said Patricia Yeager, CEO of The Independence Center, an organization that advocates for the disabled in El Paso, Teller and four other Colorado counties.
“This is what happens when the powers that be ignore the law,” Yeager said. “It’s similar to the EPA wastewater issue where everybody punted. People didn’t want to pay the tax, didn’t want to do the work, so they just punted it down the years and now we’re going to have some consequences.”
The systemic noncompliance with accessibility standards far precedes Suthers’ administration, however, Yeager said. She praised him and other city officials’ willingness to revitalize Colorado Springs’ streets and sidewalks.
“This is going to open up people’s lives. This isn’t just for decoration,” Yeager said. “By the end of the (14 years) we’re going to have a city where people using any kind of mobility device will be able to get from point A to point B and they’re going to be able to spend money.”
Enacted in 1990, the ADA requires governments to provide equal access to facets of public life for the disabled, including schools, schools, workplaces and transportation
By 2015, Colorado Springs and El Paso County had fallen well short of the spirit and letter of the ADA, The Gazette reported. Buildings and pathways were inaccessible to the then-estimated 66,000 people with disabilities in the county. The backlog of instances of noncompliance seems to have grown since then.
The city is moving in the right direction, however, Yeager has said. Last year the City Council approved spending $300,000 to hire five ADA inspectors, an administrator and a human resources staffer to bring the city better into compliance with accessibility standards.