Down the Potty

Overpriced government johns.

The New York Times reports:

After spending $5 million on its five automated public toilets, Seattle is calling it quits.

The taxpayer cringes at the revelation that the City of Seattle spent one million dollars per toilet before giving up.  No wonder taxes keep going up.  Our hearts go out to the longsuffering Washingtonian taxpayers, who not only can't afford a pot to piss in, but apparently will no longer have one provided by the city either.  The Seattle city fathers' faces should be flushed with shame.

The Times tells us that there's nothing inherently wrong or unworkable with the idea of public toilers:

The dismal outcome coincides with plans by New York, Los Angeles and Boston, among other cities, to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for expansion this fall in their installation of automated toilets - stand-alone structures with metal doors that open at the press of a button and stay closed for up to 20 minutes. The units clean themselves after each use, disinfecting the seats and power-washing the floors.

Although they didn't want to come right out and say why the Seattle toilet effort failed, the Times gave us enough information to figure it out for ourselves:

In the typical arrangement involving cities that want to try automated toilets, an outdoor advertising company like JCDecaux provides, operates and maintains them for the municipality in exchange for a right to place ads on public property like bus stops and kiosks. Revenue from the advertisers flows to both the company and the city. But a strict advertising law here barred officials from such an arrangement, meaning Seattle had to pick up the entire $5 million cost. "That's a lot of money, a whole lot," said Ray Hoffman, director of corporate policy for Seattle Public Utilities, the municipal water and sewage agency that ran the project. [emphasis added]

Now we understand - the toilets cost too much because they were being maintained by the city.  Seattle law keeps the city from letting private companies advertise so there was no income stream with which to pay a private firm to maintain the toilets.  In a literal application of the old adage, "No tickee, no washee!" the city had to pay for the toilets out of tax revenue instead of giving a profit-oriented company an incentive to run them efficiently.

A couple of questions will occur immediately to anyone as versed in the vagaries of city budgeting as Scragged readers:

  • Why couldn't they just change the rules and sell advertising?
  • Why, oh why, did the toilets cost $1 million each over a five year period?  That's $200,000 per potty per year.  I'd maintain them myself for that kind of money.  Potty keeping in Seattle apparently pays far better than the $50-per-hour John McCain offered to pay American lettuce pickers!

This story sets in stark relief both the virtues of privatization and the incompetent inefficiencies of public-sector unionism.  New York and Boston, two cities which are unusually friendly to organized labor, have managed to arrange for private firms to keep their public toilets working.  The city gets money it did not get before and the citizens have someplace to go besides the gutter.  Instead of going private and getting a share of the advertising income, Seattle dumped $5 million of public funds down the toilet, then did the same with the toilets themselves.

Beyond the Bathroom

News reports show that bureaucratic decisions affect matters far beyond mere public toilets.  The media have been full of reports of the "housing crisis," reporting that builders are starting far fewer houses than in the past.  Yet Reuters reports that housing starts are up dramatically in, of all places, New York City!  The article "Housing starts rise because of rule change" explains why:

Home building projects started in June surprisingly rose 9.1 percent due chiefly to a change in New York City building codes that, if it were ignored, would have seen starts decrease by 4.0 percent, a government report said on Thursday.

New York City is famous as the home of an exotic bureaucracy which enforces an extensive rule book.  The article points out that if the rules had not been changed, housing starts would have decreased by 4% instead of rising by 9%.

We've commented on the apartment shortage in New York, a persistent problem which is brought about mostly by rent controls which mean that landlords often can't make a profit operating rental units in the city.  The building codes had made it too difficult for builders to create new housing, but now that they've been eased, housing starts are way up.

New York needed more housing but the city government was in the way.  Now that the government is out of the way, or at least a little less in the way than it used to be, housing starts in New York have increased enough to be noticed in the national statistics.

Guess what - there's a parallel here.  The current high price of oil shows that we need more oil, but the national government is in the way.  Now that the President has canceled his executive order forbidding drilling, the US Congress is the last obstacle to getting more oil.

What would happen if they got out of the way?  That's about as likely as finding a clean public toilet in Seattle.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Bureaucracy.
Reader Comments
More taxpayers money down the crapper!
July 24, 2008 11:31 AM
It figures politicians would do this - they're all a load a crap.
July 25, 2008 8:51 AM
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