Access to Harrison courthouse limited

CYNTHIANA — Sandy Sageser moved into her new home a year ago, but she didn't update the address on her driver's license because she couldn't get to the circuit court clerk's office in the Harrison County Justice Center.

Severe back and kidney problems force Sageser to use a wheelchair or walker to get around.

Unfortunately for her, the $6 million Justice Center, which opened in 2002 as part of Kentucky's ambitious courts expansion, has just one public door. There are 11 steps in front of it and no wheelchair ramp.

Instead of a ramp, the Kentucky Administrative Office of the Courts installed a mechanical wheelchair lift. But the lift frequently is broken. When it does work, it's operated by a guard who must be summoned by a buzzer.

Sometimes there is only one guard on duty at the entrance. If so, he either needs to call for another guard to come and help the disabled person, or he has to lock down the entrance while he operates the lift.

As the minutes pass, Sageser said, disabled people are expected to wait patiently outside on the sidewalk, exposed to the weather.

"How are they getting away with this? Isn't there a law?" Sageser asked. "Prisoners get treated better at this courthouse than we do. At least the prisoners can get in."

There is a law — the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA — that says disabled people should be able to enter public facilities under their own power.

But as Harrison County shows, the law is not always followed in Kentucky courthouses, even as the AOC has allocated $880 million to build 65 justice centers around the state.

Nobody seems to know how widespread accessibility problems are.

AOC spokeswoman Jamie Ball said the courts agency can only document and address accessibility problems that citizens bring to its attention. This year, that has included complaints about inoperable automatic doors in the Jefferson and Lee county courthouses, Ball said.

The AOC did not know about the Harrison County Justice Center until the Herald-Leader inquired about it, she said.

"Once we learned there was a problem, our ADA coordinator made a site visit and asked the state ADA coordinator to have a facilities specialist look at the lift and provide feedback," Ball wrote in a statement. "Once the AOC receives that feedback, we will address issues with the lift to ensure that it operates properly and consistently within ADA requirements."

A lawmaker who oversees state construction projects, including the justice centers, said there's no excuse for a new building that is not wheelchair accessible.

"I had never heard of this, and I think it's a huge problem," said state Sen. Tom Buford, R-Nicholasville, a member of the legislature's Capital Projects and Bond Oversight Committee.

"We are spending so much on these justice centers, they had better have all the bells and whistles, they had better be fully in compliance with all the laws," Buford said.

Sageser returned to the Justice Center on a recent rainy day, shortly after the Herald-Leader and an AOC official separately visited and asked questions. A guard hurried outside to activate the lift for her.

Call ahead for help

Harrison County officials and residents started to ask questions about the absence of a wheelchair ramp at the Justice Center in 2002, before Codell Construction of Winchester finished building it, following the designs of CMW of Lexington, the architects.

The original county courthouse across the street is largely inaccessible to anyone who can't climb stairs, with toilets in the basement, offices on the second floor and no elevator. It still houses the county government.

Everyone wanted the new courts building to be better, said Bill Wright, a former member of the Harrison County Fiscal Court who has had both knees replaced and sometimes has trouble with stairs. Wright wrote letters to county and state officials in 2002, asking about accessibility.

"We wanted them to pour a ramp," Wright said. "The government just kept telling us, 'We have a waiver, we have a waiver!'"

It did have a waiver.

In a May 2002 letter to Harrison County's judge-executive, addressing accessibility concerns, AOC architect James Bauman said a ramp would be "awkward, at the very least." The AOC decided to put the Justice Center in a flood plain, so the first floor was six feet above street level. A ramp would have to be steep or lengthy to reach that level, Bauman wrote.

"We agree with the granting and acceptance of a waiver to allow the installation of a lift," Bauman wrote.

But the original premise for the lift — that it "will always be available" and "does not require any special knowledge or assistance to operate," which is what CMW agreed to in state records — swiftly was violated.

"We've had a considerable amount of trouble keeping it up and running," Judge-Executive Alex Barnett said. "We've had to go back and forth with the company that installed it, for repairs in the computer boards. We've gotten some comments and complaints about it."

Even when it works, citizens can't use the lift themselves, as the law requires. To prevent children from playing on the lift, the Justice Center's guards rearranged the controls so that only they can operate it — when they are available to do so.

The county has asked disabled visitors to announce themselves ahead of time, so guards can prepare for them. It placed a public notice in the local newspaper: "People with disabilities, under extenuating circumstances ... may enter the Harrison County Justice Center by calling the circuit clerk's office one hour prior to arrival."

These rigged arrangements are totally unacceptable for a new public building that cost the taxpayers millions of dollars, said Buford, the state senator who sits on the capital projects panel.

"Not one citizen should be stuck outside these buildings waiting for someone to help them in," Buford said. "Whatever it costs to make the Harrison County entrance fully accessible to everyone at all times, we should do it, and we should take it out of the AOC's budget."