City Has to Make Accessibility Changes or Face Heavy Fines

May 13, 2009

Pembroke appears to have little choice but to follow the guidelines of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, no matter what it costs.

The alternative is dealing with fines amounting to $50,000 a day for each day changes are not implemented.

On Tuesday, Colleen Sauriol, planning and building department manager, informed the planning and waterfront committee the deadline is looming for the city to implement the first of five standards laid out in the act - customer service.

Policies outlining how the municipality will handle this to accommodate all people regardless of their disabilities must be in place by Jan. 1, 2010.

This policy would lay out procedures and practices, staff training, a means of gathering feedback, alternate communication methods, policies for service animals, support persons and other assistive devices and notices of service disruption.

Ms. Sauriol said she will soon be presenting council a draft policy which will outline how the city will accomplish all these things, including the training which will have to be provided all staff and volunteers and the need to upgrade or replace computer equipment to ensure the city's systems are capable of handling this technology.

In March, council had endorsed a motion calling for the province to put a halt to its plans to implement this act until a full review of the cost impacts on the municipality and businesses could be done and justified considering the current economic situation. Barring that, it wanted the province to set up a centralized location to provide these services and cover the costs.

To date, while council received a lot of support from other Ontario municipalities, it has not heard from the provincial government in response.

Deputy Mayor Les Scott wondered if the city could just refuse to play along until it gets an answer.

"What could they do, arrest us all?" he said, then asked Ms. Sauriol what the consequences would be for non-compliance.

"It would be quite severe," she said, explaining Pembroke would face fines of $50,000 for every day the policy was not put in place.

Coun. Shirley White said she understands the deputy mayor's frustration, but it looks like they have no choice but to follow these guidelines.

"I haven't heard anything from anyone except more marching orders," she said, "but we cannot expose the city to the risk of fines like this."

Under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, five standards are set out which are to make Ontario fully accessible by 2025.

A customer service policy, the first one, has to be in place by Jan. 1, 2010, with the others falling in line each subsequent year. The other standards are information and communications, built environment, employment and transportation.

Information and communications is next up for 2011, and the provincial draft for employment standards has just been circulated for comment.

While city councillors have always stressed they did not have any issues with providing services to those who may need them, their objection has always stemmed from the province expecting the city to provide for every possible contingency and to pay for it. All of this would have to be specifically designed to meet each person's unique needs.

This could include the procurement of computer software that enables screen readers, speech-to-text conversion, preparing documents to be printed in Braille-ready format, website reconfigurations and interpretation services, plus staff training.

The standard states organizations will accept and provide communication through sign language, note taking and real-timecaptioning services and personal communication assistants when a person with a disability has requested accommodation.

This matter first came up during February's planning and waterfront committee meeting, when its members were informed to provide communication and information services, as outlined under the standard, would cost the city between $250,000 and $750,000 annually.

At that meeting, Ms. Sauriol said according to a report commissioned by the province on the costing, it is estimated most small municipalities will see a one to three per cent increase in their operating budgets to accommodate these changes.

However, she said during Tuesday's planning meeting this information has since disappeared from the provincial database and she now cannot say what the costs would be to implement it.

While the city seems stuck between a rock and a hard place, it is not alone.

The Ontario Municipal Human Resources Association and the Association of Municipal Managers, Clerks and Treasurers of Ontario both predict chaos and huge expenses in funds and time as municipalities scramble to meet these standards.

They also call on the province to assume the responsibility and the costs for implementation.

Stephen Uhler is a Daily Observer reporter.
Article ID# 1565641

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