A San Francisco Public Toilet Costs $326,000

Mom, apple pie, and public lavatories. Okay, restrooms don't possess the same hold upon Americans as the bonds of motherhood or baked goods — but, really, who goes out on a limb to oppose public plumbing?

Perhaps that's what proponents of San Francisco's Proposition A were thinking when they sent a glossy mailer to voters emblazoned with an image of the Golden Gate Park Panhandle's humble public restroom with the text, "Build new park restrooms today."

Not included in the mailer, however, was the Panhandle john's price tag: $531,219, according to the Recreation and Park Department's November 2007 project status report. Also not mentioned was the overall cost of Prop. A: $185 million, $11.4 million of which is budgeted for 35 new restrooms at $326,000 a pop.

Incidentally, $530,000 will get you a five-bedroom, three-bathroom home in Mesa, Arizona — complete with a heated pool, spa, and deluxe patio with an in-ground trampoline. But a bevy of calls to other cities' rec and park departments revealed that constructing park restrooms is hardly a poor man's pastime.

In New York City, a restroom with three toilets and/or urinals on each side costs a staggering $1 million. In Chicago, however, a recently installed unit ran around $210,000 and was twice as the size of the Panhandle john; Los Angeles officials estimated $250,000 for a four-stall restroom; and Denver taxpayers shelled out $312,000 for lavatories that are "winterized" — a process San Franciscans need not worry about.

So why does San Francisco pay more than others? Well, for one, the prefabricated model the city buys runs around $150,000 and is trucked in from Kentucky (Oakland purchases one that costs around half that from Oregon).

Rec and Park spokeswoman Rose Marie Dennis says that the Kentucky toilets are sturdy; they'll take a licking and keep on ticking (not that anyone should lick a lavatory). She says other costs derive from hours of planning and meetings (slowed by opposition from neighborhood activist groups); replacing archaic plumbing and electrical systems; using union labor; and politically correct, San Francisco–type regulations restricting any involved companies from, say, having business ties to Myanmar.

Barbara Meskunas thinks it's simpler: She blames government sloth. The executive director of the San Francisco Taxpayers Union — the only organization to take a public stance against Prop. A, which is backed by the mayor and all 11 supervisors — doesn't anticipate voters siding with her. "In this city, people will vote for their own executions if you send them enough propaganda in the mail ahead of time," she says.

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