An Open Letter to Ann-Marie Hogan, City Auditor

Ann Marie Hogan selfie, from Berkeley Daily Planet 9/26/14

Dear Ms. Hogan,

I have been deeply impressed over the years by your concern for prudent and transparent management of the city’s finances.  In that context I write to draw your attention to a glaring discrepancy between two city departments in spending for a basic necessity: maintenance of clean public restrooms.  Both the Parks and Waterfront Department and the Finance Department, independently of each other, hire contractors to clean city restrooms, including restrooms on the waterfront.  But the Parks and Waterfront Department spends nearly three times as much per unit per service for restroom maintenance as does the Finance Department, and gets a lower standard of cleanliness for the money.  The spending gap between these two city departments over time, if eliminated, would pay for major restroom upgrades in city parks, with money left over.  

Let’s dive into the numbers.  

(1)  What the Parks and Waterfront Department Spends 

The Parks and Waterfront Department signed a maintenance contract starting on October 1, 2014, with United Site Services (USS), a national corporation that specializes in providing portable restroom units for temporary environments.  The contract specifies monthly maintenance charges based on the number of services per week.  Here are the locations, the number of units, the number of services per week, and the 2014 contract prices per month and per year:

Cost of Temporary Restroom Maintenance -- 2014 Prices

LocationNumber of Units
at Location
Number of Services
Per Week per Unit
Cost per Unit per Month for ServicesCost per Unit per Month for LocationCost per Location per Year
Totals2249$7,352$88,224
Aquatic Park16$460$460$5,520
Cesar Chavez Park56$460$2,300$27,600
Civic Center Park27$500$1,000$12,000
Cragmont Park14$208$208$2,496
Hearst & Second St27$500$1,000$12,000
James Kenney Park17$500$500$6,000
King Park13$156$156$1,872
Ohlone Park27$500$1,000$12,000
Gilman Fields72$104$728$8,736

This table shows that the city has temporary restrooms at nine locations.  Four of the locations (Aquatic Park, Cragmont Park, James Kenney Park, and King Park)  have only one unit.   Three other locations have two units (Civic Center Park, Hearst & Second Street, and Ohlone Park).  Cesar Chavez Park has five units, and the Gilman sports fields (in 2014) had seven units.  Four of the locations (Civic Center, Hearst & Second, James Kenney, and Ohlone) are scheduled for service every day of the week.  Two locations (Aquatic and Cesar Chavez) are set for six days a week, and the remainder get serviced less often.  When we multiply the number of units at a location times the number of days they receive service visits, we get the total number of services per week for that location.  So, for example, King Park with its one unit three times per week gets three weekly services, while Cesar Chavez Park with five units six times a week counts for thirty service visits per week.  Adding up all services for all units gives a total of 106 service visits to all units in all locations per week.  Multiplying that weekly total by fifty weeks — only fifty because of thirteen City holidays — makes a total of 5,300 service visits each year for all units in all locations.  

Attachment I at Page 19 of the contract (Page 15 of the attached PDF) gives flat fee prices as of 2014 for service per unit per month.  For service once a week the monthly charge is $52; twice a week is $104; and so on up to seven times a week, which costs $500 per month per unit.  The third column of the table reproduces these contract fee amounts for the given frequency of services per month.  So, for example, six weekly visits at Aquatic and Cesar Chavez cost $460 per unit per month; three weekly visits to King Park costs $156 per month, and so on. The fifth column multiplies the cost per unit by the number of units at each location.  So, at King Park with its one unit, the monthly price remains at $156.  But at Cesar Chavez Park, with its five units serviced six times a week, the monthly cost for the location is $2,300 (five times $460).  The last column multiplies the monthly cost per location by twelve to get the annual cost.  Here the extremes are King Park, with an annual cost of $1,872, and Cesar Chavez Park, where the city spent $27,600 in 2014-15 for temporary restroom maintenance.  The total cost for all locations with this price schedule was $88,224.  Dividing this annual total by the total number of service visits to all locations — which we saw above is 5,300 visits — we get a cost per visit of $16.65 in 2014.   

The 2014 contract allows USS to raise its fees annually with the Consumer Price Index (Exhibit B, paragraph 2, p. 14 of the PDF).  By this index, the annual cost increased from $88,224 in 2014 to a current $96,773, which comes to $18.26 per service visit per unit.  

(2)  What the Finance Department Spends

Now let’s take a look at how much the Finance Department spends for restroom service.  For more than ten years the Finance Department has contracted restroom maintenance work out to Universal Building Services (UBS) Inc., headquartered in Richmond.  The current contract began on July 1, 2013 and was set to terminate in 2016, but has been amended and extended.  A copy of the original 2013 contract and of the relevant 2016 amendment is attached. It covers janitorial services at more than two dozen city locations, including the mental health buildings, senior centers, community centers, police and fire stations, the planning department and the animal shelter, among others.   Fortunately, the documents provide a cost breakout for the Marina restrooms.  Note that although these restrooms are located on the waterfront, their maintenance is not in the hands of the Parks and Waterfront Department but in the hands of Finance.  

Cost of Janitorial Service for Permanent Marina Restrooms

Location Number of StallsServices per WeekTotal Services/Week at this Location    
B&C Docks8756
D&E Docks2714
F&G/H&I Docks2714
J&K Docks2714
L&M Docks2714
24 Hour Pier2714
Totals2049140

The table shows that there are seven restroom buildings around the Marina, not including the Shorebird Nature Center restroom.  One of these buildings, at the B&C Docks on the north side, contains eight unisex restroom stalls, each with its own door to the outside, and four of these also have showers.  The remainder of the Marina restroom buildings have two stalls each, one for men, one for women.  Altogether, these seven buildings contain 20 restroom units, most of which also have showers.  The contract calls for all of them to be cleaned seven days a week, without exception.  Thus, for example, service for the eight units at the B&C Dock, seven days a week, totals 56 service visits per week.  Adding the other units, we get a total of 140 service visits per week to maintain the listed Marina restrooms.  Multiplying this by 50 weeks (remembering the 13 holidays) there is a total of 7,000 service visits per year.  The contract tells us that in the 2016-2017 period, the fee for this service is $78,072.  Dividing by 7,000, we come to a cost of $11.15 per service visit.  

This number is not directly comparable with the amount the Parks Department spends to maintain temporary restrooms.  There are differences in the scope and the scale of the work. The contract (at p. 26 of the PDF)  lists the tasks to be done by the janitorial service at the Marina restrooms on a daily basis:

  • All urinals, toilets and lavatories must be thoroughly cleaned with a solution containing a commercial grade, approved disinfectant and sprayed with an approved germicide to kill surface germs.
  • All lavatory room floors will be damp mopped with germicidal solution.
  • All walls and partitions around sinks, urinals and toilets will be cleaned.
  • All mirrors and glass shower doors will be cleaned with an ammoniated glass cleaner.
  • All chrome faucets will be polished.
  • All waste paper baskets will be emptied, contents disposed of, and plastic liners replaced.
  • All paper towel dispensers and soap dispensers will be filled.
  • All bathroom and shower walls will be cleaned, disinfected and polished.
  • All restroom floors must be thoroughly cleaned with a solution containing a commercial grade approved disinfectant and sprayed with an approved germicide to kill surface germs.

The temporary units, by contrast, have no mirrors or shower doors, no faucets of chrome or otherwise, no sinks, no waste paper baskets, no paper towel dispensers, and it’s debatable to what extent their walls and floors, much smaller than those of the permanent restrooms, ever receive this kind of cleaning and disinfecting treatment.  The scope of work in the temporary units is much narrower. 

The scale of the permanent premises also differs greatly from the temporary units.  Fourteen of the Marina restrooms have attached showers.  A competing janitorial contractor who bid on this job in 2007 would have charged separately for the restrooms and the showers: $10 for the restrooms, $13 for the showers, per visit.  Source.  The bid highlights the difference in scale.  If we treat the fourteen showers more realistically as roughly equivalent in service effort to restroom units, then the Marina has the equivalent of 34 restroom units, each serviced seven times a week, which makes a total of 238 service visits per week, or 11,900 service visits per year.  Dividing the annual cost of $78,072 by 11,900, the cost per unit per service visit is just $6.56.  By comparison, as we saw above, the Parks Department spends $18.26 per unit per service visit, almost three times as much as the Finance Department. 

(3)  What Accounts for the Maintenance Cost Disparity?

What accounts for the difference between the cost of servicing temporary units (Parks) and servicing permanent restrooms (Finance)?  Both of the corporations involved, Universal Building Services and United Site Services certified that they complied with Berkeley’s Living Wage Ordinance and Equal Benefits Ordinance.  It’s unlikely that the maintenance cost disparity rests on a difference in employee wages.  

A much more plausible explanation emerged for me from watching the two crews at work.  I watched a janitorial worker at the north side Marina restrooms.  He worked with hand tools such as mops, brooms, brushes and sponges which were stored in the building. For transportation he relied on what looked like his personal vehicle. The city’s total capital investment in equipment and supplies for his work was close to zero.  

Compare that to the maintenance man for the temporary units. I watched him pull in at the wheel of a “vactor” truck, a heavy diesel vacuum unit mounted with two tanks, one that holds 1,100 gallons of waste, another for 300 gallons of water, plus a quantity of the “blue juice” whose chemical splashes greet the first users of the day.  These trucks cost upward of $250,000 to buy and no doubt a significant sum to keep running.  The super-simple, super-cheap fiberglass temporary restroom unit requires a super-sized and super-expensive piece of machinery to service it, not occasionally, but with every visit, every time. When it relies on temporary restroom units, the city outsources — and pays for — not only the labor but also the capital investment, many times over.  

Since the year 2000, the city has spent nearly a million and a half dollars to maintain  temporary restroom facilities.  The following table shows the contract amounts.  

Annual Contract Amounts for Temporary Restroom Maintenance

YearContract Amount
2000$62,500
2001$62,500
2002$62,500
2003$62,500
2004$60,000
2005$60,000
2006$60,000
2007$60,000
2008$100,000
2009$100,000
2010$100,000
2011$100,000
2012$100,000
2013$105,000
2014$105,000
2015$105,000
2016$105,000
2017$105,000
Total$1,515,000

These numbers are ceilings (“Not To Exceed”) and the actual amounts paid against the contractor’s invoices are about five to ten per cent less, on average.  But the table shows only a fraction of the city’s historical spending on these devices.  The temporary restroom units in Cesar Chavez Park go back 25 years, and some other locations undoubtedly have similar stories.  In only one location has the city replaced temporary units with permanent restrooms in this century.  That is Aquatic Park, which had eight temporary units in the year 2000, and today has a permanent restroom plus one temporary unit.  In two other parks — Cesar Chavez and Civic Center — the city has eliminated one of the temporary units, making the remainder take up the load.  The temporary units at Hearst and Second Streets  and at the Gilman Fields are new additions.  In a few locations, the city has slightly bumped up the number of weekly services.  Otherwise the picture is one of a long-standing establishment of temporary units deployed for permanent duty, with the resultant high costs for maintenance.     

(4)  Maintenance Cost Savings Would Cover Capital Expenditures

As we have seen, janitorial services for permanent restrooms (Finance Department) represent a substantial saving over services for temporary units (Parks Department).  If the city’s 22 temporary units were permanent units, service costs per visit per unit would drop from the current $18.26 to about $6.56, as we saw above.  At the current frequency of services per week, the cost would come to $34,768 per year for all 22 units together, or $1,580 per year per unit.  That would be a saving of $62,005 per year on service costs compared to the temporary units.  Even if we increased the frequency to seven visits a week, the same as the Marina restrooms today, the cost would be $50,512 per year for all units together, or $2,296 per unit, a saving of $46,261 per year.  

But this arithmetic underestimates the cost gap.  In high-use locations like Cesar Chavez Park, Civic Center Park, and Ohlone Park, the city has had to put up two temporary units side by side. This is not because people are standing in line to get in. It’s because the tiny holding tanks of the temporary units fill up quickly on a busy day.  (See photo gallery, below.) That’s not a problem with permanent units that have flush toilets.  A single flush-toilet unit can easily replace two or more temporary units at a given location.  (At Aquatic Park, the two-sided permanent facility replaced seven temporaries.)  Unisex units today are preferred over the gendered units built a generation ago, with a great saving in costs. The 22 temporary units in the nine current locations could be replaced by ten permanent units.  The annual maintenance cost for seven-day service would come to $22,960 for all units together, a saving of $73,813 annually.  

But, of course, this arithmetic ignores the capital expenditure involved in building permanent units.  In the past, these were formidable, but the Parks Department did not blink.  It spent just shy of four million dollars in 2009 putting up the custom-built eight-unit restroom structure near the B and C Docks on the north side of the yacht basin.  As this is written, the Parks Department intends to spend $600,000 in grant money to build one new restroom near the Cal Adventures building on the south side of the basin.  When it wishes, the Parks Department can summon the resources to construct expensive, showy custom-built facilities for select groups of users.  

In today’s market,  capital expenditures of this magnitude appear highly questionable, if not scandalous.  An internet search readily shows that a number of vendors nationwide offer attractive prefabricated park restrooms for a fraction of those costs.  The big disruptive force in today’s park restroom market is the Greenflush Restrooms company of Vancouver WA, just across the river from restroom-wise Portland OR, birthplace of the Portland Loo.  The firm has pioneered a hybrid technology that combines the user appeal of odor-free flush toilets with the practicality of freedom from sewer hookups at a very aggressive price.  Recently installed units in Lathrop and in Pacifica, with flush toilet, urinal, and sink for handwashing, cost in the range of $50,000 to $60,000, installed.  Every location in Berkeley that now has temporary units could have permanent flush-toilet restrooms for the price of the Parks Department’s one proposed new south side showpiece.  

To be sure, the hybrid technology, with its freedom from the sewer system, also needs to be pumped out.  But the holding tanks of these units are vastly larger, and the need for pumping is not daily or weekly or even monthly, but may be as infrequent as twice a year.  The unit at a busy dog park in Lathrop went eight months before the vactor truck had to be called.  I’ve talked with Debbie Thornton, Account Manager at United Site Services, the same contractor who now pumps out Berkeley’s temporary units, and obtained a quote of  just $455 to empty a 1,500 gallon holding tank, a typical size for the Greenflush models.  Assuming generously that two pump-outs a year would be required, that would add $910 to the annual maintenance cost per unit.  For ten units, $9,100.  That would raise the annual maintenance cost for all ten hypothetical units from $22,960 to $32,060 — still a saving of $64,713 per year over the current temporary unit maintenance expense.  At that rate, the city would recover the capital cost of ten permanent Greenflush units in less than ten years.  They would pay for themselves, with money left over. 

Conclusion

Money matters.  But upgrading from temporary facilities to permanent flush-toilet restrooms isn’t just about saving money.  It’s about winning park user satisfaction, and it’s about serving families, and children, and respecting gender equity.  And it’s about aesthetics, and about civic pride, and about good government. In the new season of “Orange is the New Black,” the women who have seized control of the prison select the worst possible punishment for their hostages: they put them in porta-potties.  The Parks Department inflicts that punishment on park visitors every day.  This might be excusable if temporary units saved the city money.  But, as we have seen, the opposite is the case.  

Institutions, including governments, tend to break up into silos.  One department doesn’t know what another is doing, even when they offer very similar services.  In Berkeley, the Finance Department is on top of its game, providing essential public services at minimal cost.  The Parks and Waterfront Department, not.  You, as City Auditor, are in a position to overview all city departments, and to make whatever adjustments may be necessary to correct glaring uneconomical disparities.  

Respectfully,

Martin Nicolaus (“Mosey2014”)

View a gallery of photos related to this document. Click on an image to enlarge. Parental guidance and viewer discretion advised.    

 

 

 

 

 

 

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