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Pinellas seeking more help for the disabled at gas stations

Most drivers fueling up at a gas station just have to press a few buttons and swipe their credit card. But for those with physical disabilities, that routine errand can be much more difficult. Pinellas County officials are considering an ordinance that would ease their pain at the pump.

The county wants to follow Hillsborough and Pasco counties in requiring gas stations to post a phone number on their pumps so disabled patrons can call to request assistance from an employee.

The ordinance's proponents say it is a commonsense, inexpensive measure that will address the problem that filling up poses to the disabled.

"When you're in a busy gas station, especially at rush hour, it's a little dangerous to roll out there in your wheelchair, with your ramp down, cars zinging in and out," said Ben Ritter of Tampa, former government relations director for the Florida Gulf Coast Paralyzed Veterans of America.

The Americans With Disabilities Act already requires gas stations with two or more attendants on duty to assist disabled customers. Pinellas' proposed ordinance would enable the county to enforce the requirement, said County Attorney Jim Bennett.

"The ADA has a requirement, so the question is, how do we go about making it a requirement that we can readily enforce? And an ordinance is the way to do that," he said.

Ritter, who first developed the idea of displaying gas stations' phone numbers on their pumps, said the requirement has been ineffectively enforced. "People pull up to a gas station, wave their (handicapped) placard, honk their horn, usually to no avail," he said.

This problem originated with the advent of self-service, said Pat Morricca, head of the Gasoline Retailers Association of Florida, who has given input on the ordinance. Fewer employees on duty means fewer clerks available to help the disabled, he said.

"You can't tell somebody to put two people on because of the disabled," he said. "It's bottom line today with everything."

Morricca added that he supports Pinellas' proposed ordinance in its current form. The association represents fewer than 100 retailers statewide, he said.

But Ned Bowman, executive director of the Florida Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, who has spoken to county officials about the ordinance, said he is not yet convinced of its necessity.

"I'd be curious to know how many people they think it's affecting," he said. "Is there a need for it?"

The association represents more than 90 percent of the more than 7,000 gas-selling convenience stores in Florida, Bowman said.

He would favor posting signs at stations with two or more attendants on duty. Drivers could avoid going from station to station seeking assistance, he said, adding that he thinks the problem is overstated. "Most of the disabled know where to go get gas," he added.

Sandy Sroka, ADA coordinator for Hillsborough County, which in December became the first county to adopt this kind of ordinance, said she has heard no complaints from customers or gas stations. "We're pleased so far," she said.

Sroka, who uses a wheelchair, said she has found the new law useful in her own life.

"It's been great because I don't have to rely on someone else being in the car to assist me," she said, adding that she can now pull into stations with the lowest prices without fretting over whether she will be able to get help.

A public hearing on the proposed ordinance is scheduled for today's County Commission meeting. Public hearings begin at 6 p.m. on the fifth floor of the county courthouse, 315 Court St., Clearwater.

Andy Thomason can be reached at (727) 445-5155 or athomason@tampabay.com.

Pinellas seeking more help for the disabled at gas stations 07/23/12 [Last modified: Monday, July 23, 2012 11:54pm]
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