County officials estimate $175,000 to be spent on compliance

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FARMINGTON — San Juan County has signed a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice that requires it to comply with provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act or face legal action.

As part of the agreement, the county will be required to hire an independent licensed architect, who will certify that the county has made physical alterations to improve accessibility at public facilities, including polling places and emergency shelters.

Alterations include reducing the slope gradients of some wheelchair ramps, widening entryways and retrofitting bathrooms for handicap accessibility.

The agreement also requires the sheriff's office, the office of emergency management and the county's detention facilities to adopt policies to address the needs of the physically and cognitively disabled.

San Juan County Safety and Compliance Manager Stewart Logan said the county estimates it will spend $175,000 over the next three years to comply with the agreement, which was signed Monday by the U.S. DOJ.

Logan said federal officials first inspected county facilities three years ago as part of Project Civic Access, which was created to enforce the Americans with Disabilities Act, a 1990 federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on disability.

The federal enforcement program has secured 218 settlement agreements with 203 localities across the United States, according to the U.S. DOJ's website. The federal government has previously signed settlement agreements with five communities in New Mexico, including Chaves County, the city of Santa Fe and Taos County.

Nancy Koenigsberg, senior attorney for Disability Rights New Mexico, said there are likely many more communities in New Mexico that could be found noncompliant with federal accessibility laws.

"My bet is that any community in the state, if they looked, there would be problems," she said.

Koenigsberg said accessibility barriers can severely limit the ability of a disabled person to freely participate in public activities.

"Things that people without disabilities take for granted, or would consider a minor inconvenience, could be considered a serious obstacle for someone with a disability," Koenigsberg said.

County Executive Office Kim Carpenter said the county already has identified a local architect to monitor compliance and is now awaiting federal approval for the hire.

Carpenter said he thought the agreement was a benefit to the county and its residents.

"It is good that we have this kind of engagement, to make sure we are addressing all the needs that people have," he said.

Steve Garrison covers crime and courts for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4644. 

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