Talk about flushing money down the toilet.
Violations of the Americans With Disabilites Act, most of those dealing with handicap access to restrooms, will cost Oconee County taxpayers more than a million dollars to repair.
Shortly after the county's new $8 million courthouse opened in 2003, the US Department of Justice slapped it with 93 violations of ADA requirements. County officials say the DOJ found the violations during a random inspection -- not as the result of any complaints by the disabled public.
"We still haven't had any complaints from the disabled," says Lake Julian, Oconee County's Director of Facilities Maintenance.
He says many of the violations seem "minor" and could be found at any public building in the country.
"But they are violations and we know we have to come into compliance," says Julian.
For instance, ADA requires toilets to measure 18 inches from the center of the bowl to the wall. Julian says several of the toilets in the courthouse measure 19 inches. Also, some of the stalls are four-feet wide, whereas ADA requires them to be five feet. And mirrors are 41 inches from the floor, whereas ADA requires 40 inches.
The mirrors are an easy fix. The toilets are not -- because they are mounted into the wall.
"If they were mounted in the floor like the one at your house, you could just put in an offset flange and slide it over one inch to be in compliance," says Julian. "But since it's mounted into the wall, all of the plumbing runs up through the wall."
Which means the entire wall will have to be torn out and all of the plumbing shifted over -- one inch.
There are other problems, too. The handicap parking spaces out front slope at too sharp of an angle, according to Julian. Also, there is no wheelchair ramp at the rear exit. And some of the courtrooms must be reconfigured to allow wheelchair access.
"These repairs won't be cheap," says Julian.
Oconee County recently settled a lawsuit with the architect, FJ Clark, which is now defunct. Clark handed over $825,000 in the settlement. The contractor, MB Kahn, also agreed to pay $85,000 for its responsibility in the mistakes that were made with the toilets and the slope of the cement in the parking lot.
"We were simply following the specifications of the design," says Larry Kendall, executive vice president of MB Kahn. "We built in accordance to plans and specifications. We did not play a role in the original design."
Ironically, the county has hired Kahn to make the repairs. Julian says that is because Kahn offered the best price and is already familiar with the building. And he adds, 98% percent of the issues were due to the design of the building, not the actual construction.
Kahn has given the county a guaranteed maximum price of just over $2 million for the repair work. The county will apply the money it received from Clark in the lawsuit and the $85,000 credit from Kahn, which will bring the price down to around $1.1 million.
Kahn says work will begin within 30 days. It is expected to take nine to twelve months to complete the project. Oconee County Clerk of Court Beverly Whitfield says she has a plan to ensure court proceedings can continue without interruption -- though it will be no small inconvenience.
"Some weeks we have court happening on all four floors, so we will have to make some arrangements and move some courts around to make sure nothing is delayed," says Whitfield.