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Bond Issue Plan Draws Criticism From Activists : Politics: In effort to comply with mandate to make city more accessible to disabled, Long Beach will place the measure on the ballot. Foes call it a delaying tactic.

August 11, 1994|JOHN POPE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Long Beach City Council, struggling to comply with a federal mandate to make the city more accessible for the disabled, has decided to place a $48-million bond issue on the November ballot to raise money for the improvements.

The unanimous council vote last week drew criticism from disabled-rights activists who described the bond issue as a delaying tactic because it stands little chance of being approved.

City officials "are buying time so they can elude the tough budget-cutting choices," said Marilyn Tradewell, whose son Robbie has used a wheelchair since an auto accident left him partially paralyzed five years ago. "It allows them to hide behind the legal protection that they're acting in good faith."

Some council members acknowledged that the bond measure, which needs a two-thirds' vote to pass, may face tough odds at the ballot box. In an effort to improve the measure's chances, the council voted Tuesday to delay a separate $95-million bond issue to finance a new police headquarters and other public safety projects.

However, council members said, the city must show some good-faith effort to begin the work by January, 1995, under the federal Americans With Disabilities Act.

"While I'm not totally happy about putting this on the ballot, I just don't see any alternative," said Councilman Thomas J. Clark at the council meeting. "The money just isn't there."

Councilwoman Doris Topsy-Elvord said she was skeptical that the measure would obtain the required approval of two-thirds of the voters. Councilman Jeffrey A. Kellogg said he thought it was the best the city could do "in an extremely difficult situation."

The ADA, as the sweeping law is known, requires that all city facilities, bus stops, streets and sidewalks be made accessible to disabled people by 1995.

In Long Beach, that will mean spending an estimated $12.6 million to upgrade 224 public facilities, including the Queen Mary and the Convention Center; about $26.7 million for curb ramps at about 4,500 intersections, and about $4.4 million to upgrade more than 2,100 bus stops, said Dolores Barrows, the city's ADA compliance officer. The remaining funds from the bond measure would cover related expenses, she said.

"Even though we won't be in compliance (by 1995), we have to have something in place," Barrows said. "The bottom line is that this is a federal law, and cities have no choice."

After Jan. 26, 1995, Long Beach could face fines of up to $50,000 for each instance where a structure or public walkway is not accessible, Barrows said, or be ordered by a judge to make the changes. The fines could be less, however, if a judge determined the city had made a "good faith effort" to comply, she said.

Ben Rockwell, a Long Beach resident who uses a wheelchair, said he agreed with the council's decision to issue bonds.

"Voters should understand that this is the easiest way for the city to get full accessibility, the least risky of other methods, and will ultimately save the taxpayers money," Rockwell said. "With some of these streets, you can count up five violations in a few blocks, and that could be (hundreds of thousands) in fines right there."

Rockwell said that Long Beach has numerous obstacles for people who must use wheelchairs--from sidewalks that cannot be navigated to public restrooms that have steps leading to the doors.

Since the ADA took effect in 1992, the city has hired a full-time ADA coordinator and spent about $1.5 million in improvements, including making City Hall restrooms accessible and adding a hydraulic lift at the Belmont Plaza Pool.

Councilman Alan S. Lowenthal said that the bond issue--a 20-year general obligation bond to be paid by property tax assessments--will not relieve the city of its obligation to make facilities accessible.

If the bond issue fails, Lowenthal said, the city will have to pay for the improvements over a longer term, probably through a combination of budget cuts, tax assessments and federal Housing and Community Development Block Grants.

Councilman Douglas S. Drummond said the bond measure should not be seen as a city attempt to pass the buck onto the taxpayer.

"We have a responsibility and one way or another we'll pay for it," he said.

The ADA was designed to give the estimated 43 million disabled Americans equal access to jobs, transportation and public facilities. The statute also bans discrimination against the disabled.

Bob Torrez, the city's director of financial management, said Long Beach voters have never approved the type of taxable, general obligation bond issue that is proposed. The bond issue, if approved, would increase property taxes by about $30 to $35 a year on a $150,000 home for 20 years.

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