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The following article was posted on August 27th, 2008, in the New Times - Volume 23, Issue 4 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from New Times [newtimesslo.com] - Volume 23, Issue 4

Government and waste

Is a quarter million for a crapper flushing money down the drain?

PATRICK HOWE

How much is too much for a city to pay, at a time when money is tight, to replace a public restroom with another that’s essentially the same? Is $100,000 too much? Is $200,000 too much?


PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
Brett Cross has an answer. He says plans by the City of San Luis Obispo to replace two well-worn restroom buildings in Laguna Lake Park for a combined price of about $500,000, are akin to, well, flushing the money down the drain.

“This is insane,” said Cross, a Laguna Lake resident. He said he’s been seeking improvements to the park for years, but fears this sort of spending will eat up whatever else might have been otherwise available.

“How in the world can a bathroom cost $250,000 to build?” he wondered.

For their part, city officials agree $250,000 for a concrete restroom is a lot of money, but they say the city doesn’t have much choice in the matter.

Parks and Recreation Director Betsy Kiser said the bathroom replacements stem from a 2004 agreement the city made with the U.S. Department of Justice to bring city facilities into compliance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. Because the restrooms in question are more than 35 years old, officials decided it wouldn’t make sense to simply renovate to achieve compliance.

And it’s not just the Laguna Lake restrooms,.The city is also allotting $300,000 to replace a restroom building in Santa Rosa Park.

“I think it’s outrageous, too,” Kiser said of the costs, “but I don’t have any control over the price of these goods.”

She noted that the cost isn’t out of line with what other cities have paid for similar work.

Hopefully, said project manager Bridget Fraser of the city’s Public Works Department, the costs will come in below the estimates.

The projects haven’t been put out for bid yet, Fraser said, but she said recent bids for other jobs have come in slightly under expectations as area contractors have competed for work during the building slump.

“We’re really not doing anything extravagant,” Fraser noted. Plans for the buildings foresee them being roughly the same size, and with the same number of toilets and fixtures, as the current bathrooms.

They’re to be built out of heavy timbers with rock veneer and they’ll be designed to be low-maintenance and vandal resistant, with lockable rolling gates.

“Bathrooms aren’t cheap,” Fraser said. “There’s a lot that goes into a small project; you’re talking tile and plumbing and toilets and electrical … so that’s what it appears to be costing.”

Leslie Halls has a unique perspective on the issue.

As executive director of the SLO County Builders Exchange, she said $250,000 per restroom for a city project sounds within reason, considering that government projects, by law, would have to be done under union-rate wages.

“Any time you start doing government work, the price just explodes,” she said.

Which brings us to her other hat. Halls is also immediate past president of the San 4watchdog group for local government spending.

Wearing that hat, she wonders if there isn’t another option available for a city that’s been left reeling, in large part, from a recent finding that it would have to pay millions in unexpected costs to police employees who won a recent arbitration decision.

“Taxpayers are in no mood to pony up these kind of costs,” she said.

SLO Council Member Andrew Carter said that, given the Justice Department agreement, the city doesn’t have much choice.

“I guess the question really is, what do you think of the Americans with Disabilities Act?” he asked.

He noted, however, that if the requirement has its roots in federal law, at least some of the funds for the new restrooms will come from federal purse strings. The city plans to tap community block grants for at least some of the costs.

None of the answers quite satisfy Cross. “I understand why they need replacing,” he said, “but there has to be a less expensive solution.”


Managing Editor Patrick Howe can be reached at phowe@newtimesslo.com