SALEM — Steve Kapantais, a disabled Salem resident with severely limited eyesight, is a frequent critic of the city's accessibility efforts — or lack thereof as he may argue — but while out on a recent walk down the newly built dock on Congress Street, he had something else to say entirely.
Kapantais noted that, at 50 feet, the city had not just met, but exceeded the length requirement of 30 feet for the dock's ramp. The project also incorporated ample lighting, and it sacrificed spots for boats to tie up in order to be as compliant as possible with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
"Whoever ran this project needs to be given credit," he said, standing on the water's edge with his 3-year-old seeing-eye dog Fritz. "ADA requirements for boat ramps and boat docks aren't well known by everybody. You wouldn't even think there would be one, but there is — and everything here is within those guidelines."
Kapantais sued the city last year over small road-side parks that he argued couldn't be used by handicapped residents. The issues were quickly rectified. Last month, Kapantais and others appealed to the City Council to address a wide range of issues at numerous city buildings — issues that were outlined in a voluminous report on the city's ADA compliance.
The council's public health committee will soon hold a meeting on that topic. Councilors, prompted by the residents' pleas, committed to pull together a wide swath of city officials for this meeting once a report on the issue was finalized and received by the city. That meeting hasn't been scheduled yet, according to City Clerk Ilene Simons.
There's a daunting checklist of items awaiting those city officials.
Report praises city, outlines deficiencies
Where some see issues with ADA compliance, based on the report, city officials see praise for the work they've done and argue the city is well beyond compliant.
Over 536 pages, the Institute for Human Centered Design lists more than $1 million in work that must be done to city property, but it also applauds the city's efforts in prior years — the appointment of an ADA coordinator, a public notice policy, and a grievance procedure connected to accessibility rights.
Overall, the report makes 1,131 individual recommendations that contribute to a total estimate of $1,326,277 to fix all issues. The majority of the issues are at the city's schools and a handful of parks, as opposed to other city buildings.
"Most city-owned facilities recently altered or renovated are substantially accessible and meet most architectural requirements," the executive summary of the report reads. "Continued facility alterations, and/or renovations will significantly reduce barriers and realize the city's commitment to inclusion and equal rights."
The report notes that, in the meantime, "the greatest problems posed by existing barriers" can be addressed with policies and procedures to accommodate disabled residents and that the city has taken "significant steps" in this direction.
Lisa Cammarata, the city's human resources director and ADA coordinator, said officials are "pleased with that." But at the same time, the report doesn't suggest the city is out of the woods.
"We're not taking that as, 'You're all done. You don't have to do anything else,'" Cammarata said. "We're pleased with the recognition that some things have already been done, and as we continue to do things — renovations, restorations — we'll reduce these barriers."
The largest section of the report takes the reader through each city building, listing accessibility problems found by IHCD during a recent review.
There's an extensive section on Salem High School, which was built in 1976 and renovated in 2008.
"Many exterior facilities lack compliant accessible routes to them," the report reads. "These include the fields on the south side of the building, the basketball court in the same area, the outdoor classroom on the south side of the building and through the woods, the tennis courts on the west side of the building, the community garden, and multiple emergency exits."
The report puts the cost to fix emergency exits at $21,970, with another $31,351 to "ensure interior routes are accessible" and $22,350 to "provide accessible dining and work surfaces." Another $39,681 is estimated for bathroom renovations. Total projects are estimated at $240,143.
Other buildings, though much older, have shorter lists of work items. That includes City Hall, built in the 1800s. Projects totaling $11,197 call for compliant walk-off mats, $1,808 for things like signage and door hardware, and $2,825 in work for a bathroom. That includes $2,295 to "provide an automatic door opener" for the bathroom, as it doesn't actually have the necessary maneuvering clearance, according to the report.
"The report provided us with a lot of great information," said Jenna Ide, the city's capital projects manager. "As we build and do renovations, we also learn and adapt. Technology changes, needs change, and you have existing conditions — an entrance that was perfectly good, that would have issues after a storm. You have to do that."
Saving for the future
Kapantais says everything he's hearing from city officials is positive — from the employees, department heads and councilors. "Everyone wants to get there. It seems like, maybe, we haven't given the right resources to the professionals we hire to fix these things," he said.
So that's where the focus should shift for city finances, he said.
"ADA needs to be a priority, and the only way you can make it a priority is if it's specifically spelled out in the budget," Kapantais said. "Every department head should be able to have a budget line for an ADA transition plan, and perhaps a second budget line for capital for the ADA budget plan."
The city is trying to account for those factors, according to Cammarata.
"There's definitely going to be budget requests, depending on what we're doing or what the plans are going forward," she said. "Budget season is just starting, so I don't know what some departments are asking for."
Ide noted future projects also have to weighed with escalating costs on things like contract obligations, pension liabilities and health care, which the city has less control over.
"We do know people are going to be talking about it (ADA issues) this budget season," Ide said. "We just don't know how it's all going to shake out."
Category Cost Items
Salem Public Library $24,246 29
Brennan Fire Headquarters $24,401 18
All city buildings $144,118 173
Salem High School $240,143 277
Bentley Academy $97,063 91
All school builidngs $760,374 712
Museum Place Garage $20,505 26
South Harbor Garage $4,079 10
All garages $24,584 36
Winter Island Park $90,541 53
Collins Cove Park/Beach $57,717 13
Salem Willows Park $55,214 36
All parks $397,201 210
All city property $1,326,277 1,131