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Dispute may keep blind clients from getting help

A 2-year-old disagreement between the county bus service and a non-profit agency for the blind has escalated into a battle in which each side is accusing the other of violating federal law.

Caught in the cross-fire are people like Carrie Kohl, who has been legally blind and has used a wheelchair since she was born prematurely 27 years ago.

The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority's service-on-demand program will take her to a mall, grocery store or even a bar, but it won't take her to rehabilitation programs at the Pinellas Center for the Visually Impaired, where she learns tasks like sewing, cooking and typing.

"I need to learn to be independent in case something happens to my aunt," Kohl said, referring to Geraldine Butinski, who has taken care of her since her mother died six years ago. "It makes me sad because they're not just doing it to me, they're doing it to all the people like me."

PSTA officials have said that since the center off Bryan Dairy Road in Largo is not along any regular service routes, the authority has no obligation to take PCVI clients there.

The blind center's complaints have led the Federal Transit Administration to warn PSTA that in refusing to take disabled people to social service agencies, it is violating regulations under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

But PSTA says it will report PCVI to the Justice Department for the same thing.

"Federal law says that PCVI has to provide the same service to non-ambulatory people that they provide to others," said PSTA executive director Roger Sweeney. "Right now, they're not doing that."

PCVI executive director Stephen Barrett says the center does have two non-ambulatory clients who can't use its transportation service _ which it pays Yellow Cab of Clearwater $700,000 a year in privately raised money to provide.

They could be transported by PSTA's Dial-a-Ride Transit line, but Sweeney said the authority is concerned that all clients of the county's social service agencies would demand the same service.

"There are 1.8-million trips a year provided by social service agencies in Pinellas," he said. "At $12 to $14 a trip, that would eat up most of our budget."

PCVI used to have a van to transport clients who couldn't use a taxi, but the center gave it back to the state after PSTA orally agreed to transport them, Barrett said.

Sweeney said the clients PSTA originally agreed to transport have stopped using the service, and the two whom Barrett now wants PSTA to take on are new.

"What stops PCVI from saying, "What about one more, and one more and one more?' " said Sweeney.

Barrett said Sweeney, whose department has a budget of $26-million, is being unreasonable.

"This is the perfect example of what could be a perfect public/private partnership," he said. "Instead they've made it into a real conflict."

And Butinski says people like Kohl suffer because of it.

"The center is so very important to blind people," she said. "It's vital that Carrie and people like her learn to do things on their own."

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