The National Endowment for the Arts is holding up a $549,000 grant to the Maryland State Arts Council because the state agency's headquarters and meeting places are not fully accessible to the handicapped.
Yesterday's suspension is the latest round in a heated exchange between the two agencies that began in November with a complaint from Marilyn Phillips, 47, a disability rights activist.
Phillips, who lives in Hampstead and uses a wheelchair, says her disability has kept her from attending many Maryland arts programs that receive state and federal money. Before filing her formal complaint, she said she talked to state arts administrators about the inaccessibility of MSAC's headquarters to disabled persons.
All arts organizations that receive federal grants must certify that their programs and facilities are in compliance with Section 504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which forbids discrimination against disabled people.
Arts Council spokeswoman Carol Fox King said the arts council certified that it was in compliance because it thought its historic building was exempt from the usual requirements. The MSAC is housed in a 19th century townhouse on Mulberry Street, which is inaccessible to people using wheelchairs.
"We're going to do whatever it takes to comply," King says.
About 18 months ago, the arts council began to hold all of its public meetings outside its headquarters in more accessible locations. However, it still keeps a slide registry of Maryland artists and other archival material at the headquarters.
After the complaint was filed, the NEA asked the state agency to submit a self-evaluation report of the accessibility of its headquarters and public meeting places.
In compiling its report, MSAC arranged for two wheelchair users from the League for the Handicapped, Inc., to test the accessibility of regular council meeting spots in the Redwood and Legg Mason Towers downtown. The disabled testers found two paragraphs worth of problems in a report that it delivered to the arts council.
But this summary wasn't detailed enough for the NEA.
The agency sent its own investigator who found two pages worth of problems at the arts council's headquarters and meeting places.
Both sides agree the headquarters building is inaccessible.
Two weeks ago, the state arts council responded to a July 29 deadline for compliance set by the NEA with a promise to make necessary changes. But it did not say when.
"When they open their doors every day, they have to be accessible to all of the public if they are going to be receiving federal funds," says NEA spokesman Josh Dare. "We need to know 'What is the short term plan? What are you going to do to make your facilities accessible tomorrow?' "
"We would be breaking the law if we were to give funds to an organization when we have evidence of non-compliance with the Rehabilitation Act," said Karen Elias, assistant general counsel for the NEA.
In 1973, the old U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare developed a standard series of regulations to accompany the civil rights law. In turn, each government agency modified and refined the list of regulations for its own particular needs. The NEA distributes a 97-page handbook of guidelines, which includes sketches, measurements and examples of ways to modify existing structures.
This is the first time the NEA has suspended money to a state arts agency because it failed to comply with its requirements for the handicapped, Dare says. Normally, the agency relies on the honesty of its roughly 4,400 grant recipients because it is not set up to independently verify such information.
Several weeks ago, the federal agency set a similar compliance deadline with the Alaska Performing Arts Center. The Anchorage facility was also found to be in violation of the handicapped access rules.
The NEA money represents roughly seven percent of MSAC's $7.8 million annual budget. About $236,000 will go to artists in education programs, artists advocacy programs and grants to individual artists. The rest will help support operating costs of the arts council.
(The NEA says the grant being withheld is $565,000, but the arts council insists the amount is $549,000.)
The arts council will not need any of the money until 1992, King says.
"State grants, by and large, are draw-downs, either cash requests for reimbursable expenses or advances against a grant," Dare says. "There's no great big check that we're holding back.
"This whole thing could end up as being the loss of not one dime. If they [MSAC] came to us and said 'Tomorrow we're opening a temporary building that is fully accessible to the handicapped' and told us where it was, and we, in turn, had one of our inspectors go out and physically insure that it is, in fact, accessible, then we would lift the suspension on the spot," Dare adds.