Sunday, March 20, 2011

Florida wheelchair user files lawsuit against inaccessible county courthouse

From the Pensacola News Journal:

A Milton woman has filed a lawsuit against the Santa Rosa County Commission over the condition of the county's 84-year-old courthouse.

Debra Owens' wheelchair struck a crack in the wheelchair ramp at the front entrance to the courthouse on Feb. 7, 2007. She was thrown to the ground and injured, according to the lawsuit.

The suit also says the courthouse is not compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act and the similar Florida Americans With Disabilities Accessibility Implementation Act.

"The right of the plaintiff and other disabled citizens to access the Santa Rosa County Courthouse will continue to be denied and the discriminatory effect will continue as long as the courthouse remains in its present location," the lawsuit says.

The 13-page suit also details the building's many shortcomings, including limited disabled bathroom access and offices inaccessible by wheelchairs because of a lack of interior ramps.

The case was filed in Santa Rosa County court in February, but was moved to federal court in Pensacola late Wednesday.

In addition to compensatory damages, Owens seeks to have the courthouse renovated or to have a new courthouse built.

Owens and her attorney, Wanda Radcliffe, could not be reached for comment. Santa Rosa County's attorney for the case, Panama City attorney Timothy Tarner, said he would not comment.

The construction of a new courthouse has been an issue of frustration for the judges, attorneys and staff who work in the courthouse, which was built at its Carolina Street location in 1927, when Calvin Coolidge was president.

Santa Rosa County Judge Ross Bilbrey noted that when the courthouse was built, the population of the county was 14,083. When two wings were added to the courthouse in the late 1950s, the population was about 30,000. Today, it's 151,372.

"We are five times that number since the last expansion without any expansion of the courthouse," Bilbrey said.

The often-criticized construction of the $50 million 1st District Court of Appeal "Taj Mahal" courthouse in Tallahassee could potentially sour the public's perception of what is needed in Santa Rosa County, Bilbrey said.

I would hold court in a barn in Jay or in a pagoda on Navarre Beach. This is not about creating a nice courthouse for the judges or lawyers," Bilbrey said. "We just need a functional courthouse that will accommodate our growing county."

Clerk of Court Mary Johnson, 67, has worked at the courthouse her entire adult life. She's well aware of the heating and air conditioning problems, past problems of accessibility and the confined space of the narrow hallways and office.

"The County Commission has done things that make it better," she said. "I know that a new courthouse is the answer, but in these economic times, I'm also wise enough to know it probably isn't going to happen today."

The Santa Rosa County Commissioners sought to build a new courthouse in 2001 but came up against the challenge of finding the estimated $25 million to $30 million to do so.

"In many cases, the only way you can do that is to have a local option sales tax that's dedicated specifically for that given project. That's the way Escambia County has done many of their capital improvement projects, including roads," Santa Rosa County Commissioner Don Salter said.

"The only way we can build a new courthouse is through a citizen-approved, local-option sales tax dedicated specifically to a new courthouse," he added.

The county tried this once before and voters overwhelmingly turned it down.
In 2002, voters rejected a 1 percent sales tax increase to build a $36.3 million modern facility at the site of the current courthouse.

Some upgrades have been made at the courthouse since.

In 2009, a modular extension was constructed on the southern side of the building.

The $2 million extension, which added a courtroom, and office space for Clerk of Court staff, was funded mostly by insurance money from hurricanes Ivan and Dennis and reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Salter said.

The expansion also added a second wheelchair ramp.