The Austin City Council at its regular meeting Thursday unanimously approved a $775,000 contract for a company to clean the city’s only portable municipal toilet.
The contract, bid on by just one company, Blue Chem, Inc., is an extension of a $272,000 pilot program approved by the council in June 2016 to test the viability of municipal toilets, particularly in downtown locations. The goal of the pilot was to address the problem of public urination, particularly by the indigent and homeless population downtown.
Council member Ellen Troxclair, who voted against the pilot program, was absent on Thursday.
Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, who pushed hard for the pilot program, expressed impatience with the Department of Public Works for failing over the past two years to buy, find locations for and install two permanent toilets, the original goal of the pilot program.
Richard Mendoza, director of Public Works, told the council Thursday it might be another nine months before the department can purchase and install models that meet the city’s needs.
Mendoza did not provide cost estimates for the permanent toilets or propose locations for them.
The $27,000 toilet is currently parked in the 500 block of Brazos Street. It was first parked at the East. Sixth Street and Interstate 35 frontage road, but has been moved at least three times to other downtown locations.
The Downtown Austin Alliance, a business and property owner organization, has overseen the spending of pilot money to keep the toilet clean and to monitor its use.
The council is expected to consider a two-year contract for cleaning services at $13,750 a month, which would drop to just under $9,600 a month for the next one to three years, according to a purchasing office document accompanying the agenda item.
The supporting documents do not list possible locations for the portable toilet or specify whether or not it will be kept at one location. The council assigned the construction and upkeep of the portable toilet to the Austin Transportation Department.
When The Texas Monitor asked the Austin Public Health Department for an accounting of how much the toilet has cost thus far, a customer service coordinator said the publication needed to file a formal public information request.
The Monitor also contacted Bill Brice, vice president of operations for the Downtown Austin Alliance and the pilot program liaison, to ask about the expenses incurred. Brice had not responded at the time this story was published.
The city supporting document says the cost estimates included in the proposed contract were based on the costs of operating the toilet during the time of the pilot program.
When the city council originally approved the pilot by an 8-2 vote, the Texas Watchdog reported the city was prepared to pay as much as $12,000 a month to lease two portable toilets and spend nearly $11,000 a month to maintain them.
At the time, councils in Portland, San Francisco and San Diego were approving much larger and more ambitious contracts for public toilets as part of their strategies to deal with the homeless.
San Diego ended its program when the public toilets became a magnet for the homeless and for crime. Albuquerque, which spent $20,000 to buy a portable toilet, has yet to deploy it because of San Diego’s experience.
Austin’s pilot potty has also had its problems. When the city moved the toilet to the corner of Fourth and Colorado streets at the end of January, complaints from businesses forced its removal after only a day. The toilet stayed a few weeks next to the Buford Tower, a nationally and locally recognized landmark on West Cesar Chavez Street.
“The city continues to throw their hands up and do whatever possible to make the homeless more comfortable without regard to residents or merchants,” a downtown resident wrote to Austin American-Statesman columnist Ken Herman in February. “These porta pots must go. The neighbors, restaurants and merchants cannot live with these eyesores without consequences to their homes or businesses. We want something done about the homeless.”
A month earlier, Austin police had arrested a 32-year-old man for having tried four times to set fire to the portable toilet.
However, Brice reported to the city in January that the toilet had been used more than 11,000 times, one day more than 150 times, since September and that it was helping to alleviate the peeing-in-public problem.
“I would say this has had a very strong impact on public health in this city,” Tovo said Thursday. “I think this is a matter of human dignity, one of public health and, frankly, of water quality for the city.”
Tovo made her water quality concerns known when asking for the pilot, but neither the departments of Health and Human Services nor Watershed Protection Department provided the council with data to confirm a threat to the city’s downtown creek system.
The need is likely to increase. In the spring, the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition reported identifying 2,147 homeless people, a roughly static number for the past several years. The number sleeping on the streets, with no ready access to toilet facilities, was more than 1,000, the highest number in eight years.
The toilet contract is tiny in comparison to the $30 million a year needed to properly provide shelter and services to the homeless, according to Ann Howard, executive director of the coalition.
Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].