Last month, Madison quietly installed portable toilets in two of its parking garages to help provide 24-hour access for both the homeless and visitors.
Jim O'Keefe, director of the city's community development division, says the city doesn't know how much use they're getting. "The assumption is that word of mouth would make folks aware of their availability," he says.
It will cost the city $3,120 to maintain the toilets there for a year. They were installed as part of a temporary measure to bridge services for the homeless until Dane County opens a day resource center, which is expected to happen this summer.
But the city is also looking at building permanent public bathrooms. In this year's capital budget, it provided $300,000 to build one or more public facility. It gave city staff until Feb. 23 to report back to the Common Council, a deadline that has already passed.
Jeanne Hoffman, facilities manager for the city, says staff are still "gathering information now of what other cities do. We're trying to understand more what will work here."
Issues include whether the bathrooms will need to be heated, how they'll be maintained and where they'll be located. Although the homeless may have the biggest need for access to 24-hour toilets, the city wants to design them for everybody.
"There's a basic public health reason to have these available," Hoffman says.
Ald. Chris Schmidt, council president, says figuring out how to prevent the toilets from being destroyed by vandals could be an issue. "We need to come up with a design to minimize that, both through design and maintenance," he says.
Portland, Ore., has successfully designed a public toilet, the Portland Loo, which it now manufactures and sells to other cities. Some council members are intrigued by the idea but aren't sure whether they'll work here because of the region's harsh winters.
Schmidt doesn't know how soon the city might be able to start construction. "Whether or not we can get something done this year is still an open question," he says. "There's still the forward momentum that's started with the budget."
Ald. Larry Palm, who advocated for the toilets, says he remains "cautiously optimistic, because I have to be."
He's asked the staff to identify any possible location for the toilets and worry about politics later.
Says Palm: "If you design it so so-and-so won't object, you're going to have very few opportunities."