Toilet Economics No. 2: Restroom Repair or Replacement Costs $391,000 Per S.F. John

Categories: Government
Nepal Latrine.jpg
Well, you can't beat the price...
Yesterday we wondered why the cost per restroom based on the city's numbers had jumped from $326,000 to $379,000 per john in two years. Now we've learned -- are you sitting down? -- the cost to repair or replace a park restroom is actually $391,000 apiece.

Well, what the hell happened here? There are two reasons the cost has "jumped." One is that, hands down, "the cost of doing business in San Francisco is outrageous," as city restroom task force member Meredith Thomas puts it. The other is, when city voters in 2008 approved a massive, $185 million bond with $11.4 million earmarked for neighborhood park restrooms, they may not have been getting everything they thought they were. Let's focus on that first.

City voters pondering Proposition A in 2008 were sent a glossy mailer; it was emblazoned with a brightly colored map of San Francisco dotted with 35 red stars. These were the freestanding park restrooms that, ostensibly, could be replaced or repaired with that $11.4 million. You divide $11.4 million by 35 and that's where you get $326,000 per john. But that's also what you get when you don't read the fine print. While the 35 red stars were clearly indicated on the map, the bond's actual language says nothing about working on 35 restrooms.

"The 35 stars of the existing freestanding restroom map was meant only to illustrate existing sites, not as the final list of renovated bathrooms/projects," explains Dawn Kamalanathan, the Recreation and Parks Department's chief planner. "The restroom map is not [binding]."

So, red stars on the map be damned, voters approved $11.4 million to be spent on restrooms -- an undisclosed number of restrooms, to be later determined by the aforementioned restroom task force. "It was a really misleading map," says task force member Thomas. "We were not committed to do all of those restrooms."

To be fair, however, not all of those restrooms may have needed to be replaced or repaired. Yet this just drives the already high cost-per-restroom even higher. Last week the Chronicle reported that the restroom task force had identified the first 19 restrooms to fix or replace at a cost of $7.2 million ($379,000 per john). And yet Kamalanathan says all of those numbers are incorrect, and she has no idea where they came from.

The actual numbers, she says, are 22 restrooms for $8.6 million -- nearly $391,000 per job. Of course, that's just the average cost. Some will be less. And, as task force member Frank Triska told SF Weekly, some with "architectural significance" will cost $700,000 or more.

So, that explains why the cost per restroom "jumped" by $65,000 in two short years; it really didn't. But it doesn't explain why it costs so goddamn much to build a restroom in San Francisco. In 2007, SF Weekly contacted more than a dozen other cities to gauge how much they spend for park restrooms. It always costs more than you think it would -- but, almost uniformly, it also always costs less than it does in San Francisco.

When we asked Thomas why this is, she noted that "It seems to me the [Rec and Park] department is rather restricted in its bidding process. They're a lot more restricted than you or I in making choices on who will do the work or dismissing those people if the quality and craftsmanship isn't there."  

She also felt the department wasn't getting enough bang for its restroom buck: "30 percent of the bond dollars go into soft costs; only 70 percent ends up going into the ground."

When you think about it, that is a hell of a funny thing to say when you're talking about toilets. It'd be even funnier if it didn't mean millions of dollars of public money may be getting flushed away.

Photo   |   Nepal Community Development Foundation

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