Life safety concerns at Sunrise Centre

The Planning Department’s Building Control Unit has found three life-safety concerns relating to building deficiencies at the Sunrise Adult Learning Training Centre in West Bay.

The deficiencies, which relate to building conditions not in compliance with the Cayman Islands Building Code for business occupancy, were discovered during an inspection of the facility done in May.

The subject of the Sunrise Centre was raised during Finance Committee last week. Sunrise is a learning centre for mentally challenged adults.

When asked why government had not allocated any funds for a new facility, Minister of Education Alden McLaughlin said there have been long-standing issues with the centre and dealing with it was not something government could afford at this time.

‘Some decisions had to be taken on how money is going to be spent,’ he said, adding that it was not a case that government did not recognise the need for a new purpose-built facility.

Opposition MLA Cline Glidden Jr. asked what was being done to address the safety concerns at facility. The three safety concerns identified by the BCU involved wheelchair accessibility, fire exits and inadequate venting and fire protection of cooking equipment.

Mr. McLaughlin said the facility never met planning regulations from when it was opened in 2003.

‘The fire exits and wheelchair accesses were never met in the first place,’ he said, noting that the facility was originally a house that was converted.

Mr. McLaughlin admitted he has been aware of an overcrowding issue at Sunrise for some time, but said he only found out about the safety issues recently. He said his ministry was working to remedy the deficiencies.

‘We are working at the moment using current funding to try to address these issues,’ he said.

The BCU gave Sunrise only seven days from 15 May to respond with a plan to address the safety issues or face an order to vacate.

In its letter to the Ministry of Education, the BCU stated that a change of use from a duplex to a training centre was approved by the Central Planning Authority on 14 May, 2003. However, the approval was only granted for five years on a stipulation the facility would meet all Planning requirements and codes and obtain a Certificate of Occupancy. That never happened and the temporary planning approval expired in May.

Mr. Glidden asked why Mr. McLaughlin only found after the fact that the planning permission expired.

‘No one, not even the director of the facility, was aware it was a temporary permit, or when the permission would expire,’ Mr. McLaughlin responded.

Mr. Glidden asked why a proposal for a private sector donation of a modular classroom – which he said would have helped alleviate the overcrowding issue at the centre – was turned down.

Mr. McLaughlin said only he could approve or reject such an offer and that he had taken no decision on the proposal. But he pointed out that a modular classroom would face the same strict building codes as the current building because of the special needs of the students.

Sunrise Centre Director Roberta Gordon said she had been under the impression the building was compliant with Planning regulations, but that she had made the ministry aware of the overcrowding issues.

‘We had been concerned about the congestion problems for two years,’ she said.

Mr. McLaughlin laid the blame for the problem on the previous government administration, which he said moved the centre there without doing the things necessary to make it compliant with Planning regulations.

Leader of the Opposition McKeeva Bush said Mr. McLaughlin should stop blaming everything on the previous government.

‘When is that minister going to take responsibility for his ministry?’ he asked.

Mr. Glidden pointed out that Mr. McLaughlin had been minister now for three years and was producing the fourth budget with no provisions to address the problems with the Sunrise Centre.

He asked how many times Mr. McLaughlin had been to visit the Sunrise Centre during his tenure as minister.

‘I have not personally visited Sunrise Centre,’ he said, adding, however, that his Chief Officer Angela Martins had.

‘I know what the situation is that pertains there,’ he said. ‘I’m not suggesting for a minute that something should not be done. I’m acknowledging something must be done.’

Later Friday, the Office of the Complaints Commissioner issued a press release stating it was conducting an investigation into whether the government was providing adequate day care at the Sunrise Centre.

The OCC investigation will consider many aspects of the facility, including: transportation by bus to and from Sunrise; the ownership/lease situation with the current building; the ability to repair or renovate the current building; the suitability of the physical layout of Sunrise; the future demands on the facility; health and safety for trainees and staff; the training programmes provided at Sunrise; and the level of support for disabled adults within the Ministry of Education.

‘The OCC is doing an investigation into systems and facilities and it is not [to] be construed as a negative comment on any of the centre’s staff,’ the press release stated. ‘Parents of disabled adults have made note of the caring attitude displayed by Director Roberta Gordon and her team’

Complaints Commissioner John Epp said his final report on the matter would be ready by the end of June.