CEDAR RAPIDS — Rather than grant an extension, the U.S. Department of Justice has closed the file on an Americans with Disabilities Act settlement that bound the city to spend millions bringing all aspects of its public projects — from sidewalks to stadiums to parks — into compliance with the 1990 law by September.
“We’re very pleased, as you can imagine,” said Sandi Fowler, deputy city manager. “I think this clearly demonstrates their confidence in the great work we have done and that they can expect the same from us in the future.”
Cedar Rapids has been working to meet the terms of a four-year agreement signed in 2015 to satisfy a checklist of deficiencies across its infrastructure, and even its website.
While many projects have been completed — more than 1,800 curb ramps; updates to 24 parks and recreation sites including Ushers Ferry, Old MacDonald’s Farm and Tait Cummins Sports Complex; and improved access to skywalks and Veterans Memorial Stadium — more work remains.
The city had estimated the work would take four years and cost $15 million, but it became clear more time was needed to complete the agreement. The city requested a three-year extension.
But instead of an extension, federal authorities notified city officials they closed the case — three months early.
“Cedar Rapids has submitted documentation, photographs, reports, and other evidence to demonstrate the city’s progress,” according to a May 25 letter from Felicia L. Sadler, senior trial attorney for the Disabilities Rights Section. “Relying upon the evidence submitted by the city, the department is closing its files on this agreement with the City of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, as of the date of this letter.”
Cedar Rapids was one of more than 200 local governments the Justice Department targeted as part of Project Civic Access, an effort to eliminate physical and communication barriers in city infrastructure, facilities and programs.
But now that the file is closed, some fear access will become less of a priority for the city.
Robin Brunner, director of CompuPlace at the Ecumenical Community Center, which serves many clients with disabilities, and a past president and member of Peer Action Disability Support, said while she agrees progress has been made and city leaders are trying, she does not support the decision.
“I’m afraid if we don’t have the legal hammer over their heads, they might lose sight of things important to our community,” Brunner said.
Brunner noted some beautification projects with special pavement or planters have created challenges for people in wheelchairs or with Parkinson’s disease. She said people with disabilities often don’t realize they have a voice, but it will be more important for them to now speak up and ensure momentum for accessibility continues by policymakers.
“People don’t realize, if you don’t have a disability today, you could have one tomorrow,” she said.
Fowler said despite the case being closed, the city remains committed to complete the full list agreed upon in the settlement, and will proceed on the same timeline as before. The full budget for the projects is expected to grow to $30 million.
Numerous projects already are on the books for this year, including updates to nine city parks and numerous more curb ramps.
“What we do now is continue to do the good work we’ve been doing that allowed us to achieve this file closure,” Fowler said.
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