On the ballot for the upcoming April 2 election, Anchorage voters will see a $5 million bond for purchase and installation of 10 or more modular-style public bathrooms.
The Anchorage Assembly on Tuesday voted 10-2 in favor of sending the question to voters, after first paring the proposal down from a $9 million bond that called for up to 20 or more public bathrooms. Members scaled it back after several raised concerns about the costs for the facilities, which would be up to around $500,000 for the purchase and installation of each one.
The lower dollar figure for bond brings it roughly to the same size as two other new bond propositions, and all are addressing pressing issues that the city should strategically address, Assembly Vice Chair Meg Zaletel said.
It would also allow the city to purchase and install enough restrooms to have a municipal-wide impact and collect good data on utilization, she said.
Early in the debate, Zaletel held up a children’s book frequently used by parents while potty training their children: “Everyone Poops” by Tarō Gomi.
“That’s the truth. Everyone poops. And $5 million gives us 10 opportunities to — at least — to be able to use the restroom, to be law-abiding residents and not go anywhere else,” she said.
Anchorage currently offers just a handful of public restrooms, and they’re largely port-a-potties. The lack of facilities can often be problematic for tourists, city residents and people using the city’s extensive park and trail system.
The Assembly members sponsoring the ballot proposition — Chair Christopher Constant, Zaletel and Anna Brawley — say that the burden to provide restrooms often falls on private businesses. And port-a-potties are easily damaged and don’t hold up well to long-term, heavy public use.
“I hear from business owners downtown all the time, who are frustrated because tourists who are not patrons will try to use the restrooms because there is nowhere to go,” member Daniel Volland said.
The $5 million bond would increase property taxes by $1.01 per $100,000 in assessed value. The proposition also calls for increasing the tax cap by up to $300,000 to pay for annual maintenance and operations, which would be an increase of $0.79 per $100,000 in assessed value.
Assembly members last month had postponed the decision on whether to send the project to voters after multiple members raised questions and concerns over the costs, winter weatherization of public facilities and potential public safety impacts as Anchorage struggles to address homelessness.
Others members, including the proposition’s sponsors, say that public restroom facilities would help to alleviate public health and safety issues, such as reducing the amount of excrement on parks, trails and streets. The city and private businesses are already paying the costs of a lack of permanent facilities in many ways, they said.
If voters approve the bond, the city would likely purchase modular-style bathrooms, possibly Portland Loos from Oregon-based company Madden Fabrication, or other similar bathrooms from another company.
Making sure there is a public procurement process opens up more possibilities, Zaletel said.
“As we started to talk about this (bond), ideas for a variety of types of public restrooms have come forward. To me, that’s exciting. That means our request for proposal is likely to generate interesting ideas that could meet our needs and actually end up saving money,” she said.
The Portland Loos are designed to be used in weather down to minus 15 degrees and to discourage graffiti, drug use and other problematic behavior that has plagued public restroom projects in other cities, according to Madden Fabrication. The restrooms have slats at the bottom and top, which allows for quick visual inspection but preserves privacy at the toilet level.
Assembly member Karen Bronga had drafted a version of the proposal that would’ve scaled down the bond even further to $1 million, calling for the city to run a pilot project with just two or three public bathrooms.
But then on Tuesday, Bronga voiced appreciation for Zaletel’s less expensive $5 million version of the bond, and because its language made clear the possibility to buy restrooms from other companies.
“There is genuine enthusiasm and lots of cool things about” the Portland Loos, Bronga said. “But they are so expensive and when I’m confronted with this $500,000 per restroom it just gives me chills. It’s just too much.”
That number is a high estimate that includes all costs; buying the restrooms, shipping, plumbing and utilities, Constant said.
“That was the best number we could come up with. All evidence that we have found shows that the price will actually be less than that, and we will get more if we act in a timely manner,” Constant said.
Members Kevin Cross and Scott Myers voted against sending the bond to voters. Cross said that the city of Kodiak bought four Portland Loo-style toilets, and that they haven’t worked well. The open, slatted design attracts snow drifts, he said.
Kodiak “shut them down most of the year and just open up two of them, out of the four, for a few months during the peak seasons. The best ones are near the port where there’s lots of people,” he said.
The restrooms in less trafficked areas attract “vagrants, they get vandalized, and they’re very expensive to repair,” Cross said.
The city wouldn’t necessarily purchase them all at once, Brawley said. And it could buy more than one style, member Randy Sulte said.