ELKHART — City Hall just wasn’t designed with disabled people in mind.
That’s readily apparent when one walks into the building’s main entrance and realizes that all offices are either upstairs or downstairs.
Sure, the 97-year-old center of city government is equipped with an elevator for the upper floors and a lift for the lower level, but it’s not that simple.
Anyone wanting to use the elevator has to go down to the lower level via the lift, which isn’t perfectly reliable.
The lift’s mechanics are rather sensitive and a sign is posted encouraging anyone who has trouble using it to ask for help by pressing a buzzer.
The bigger problem, though, is that the elevator is not wide enough to accommodate modern wheelchairs. The width of the entrance with the doors wide open is an uncommonly narrow 30 inches. Inside, the elevator is only about 12 inches wider.
Those problems plus other inadequacies in the building — and the fact that city hall generates more public traffic than any other city office — puts the building at the top of a priority list for future improvements.
That priority list is part of a report that the city council will review this month before approving it and sending it to the federal government.
Even though the Americans with Disabilities Act is 22 years old, municipalities across the country are being prompted by the federal government to carry out a long-range plan for remedying inadequacies in their local buildings.
Deadline for cities, towns and counties to submit their plan is Dec. 31.
The cost of replacing the elevator with a larger one appears to be cost prohibitive, said Leslie Biek, an engineer with the city who is overseeing the city’s efforts to catalog problems and develop a plan that will help bring the city into compliance.
Since replacing the elevator might not be possible, the city is making plans so that anyone wanting to participate in public meetings in the council chambers on the second floor will be able to do so with a video conferencing system set up in the lower level.
Biek said the city is looking into replacing the lift with a ramp and will soon seek to determine if it is feasible.
City clerk Sue Beadle said the elevator was out of order for about a week about a year ago and caused problems for her office because those who had to do business with the office on the third floor and needed to use the elevator were sent downstairs. The process became cumbersome and the office eventually began extending the deadline to make payments, she said.
Beadle said she would prefer the lift be replaced with a ramp, but was unsure if it could work in the limited amount of space available.
Another issue in city hall is the large, metal handrails used along the staircase. The handrails are too big for some people to grip.
The answer, tentatively, is to add a second set of handrails that can more easily be gripped, Biek said.
The city, which has faced financial constraints in recent years, did not set aside specific money for ADA upgrades in 2013. Biek said paying for any improvements would require officials to seek an appropriation from the city council.
A rough estimate of how much it could cost to upgrade everything from sidewalks to buildings and parking lots is now believed to be $9.6 million.
Earlier this year, the city estimated the cost of making improvements to curbs and sidewalks would be about $7.4 million, The cost associated with improvements to city-owned buildings and other property such as parks, would be an additional $2.2 million.
Lerner Theatre is also on the priority list, but those problems are minor imperfections rather than significant obstructions. It’s a priority, Biek said, because it is a high traffic destination.
Among the issues at the Lerner are a few doors that are heavier than recommended by ADA standards and a door that closes too quickly, said Matt Heineman, the GIS and records manager for the city, who was responsible for assessing many of the city’s buildings.
City workers assessing public sidewalks and city properties used 33 types of forms to critique everything from doors and fountains to sinks and parking lots. The documentation exceeds 700 pages, Heineman said.
“One of the most recurring issues we have are interior doors,” Heineman said, adding that many of those concerns can be easily adjusted.