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Council OKs downtown restrooms

Friday, June 24, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano

Downtown visitors and residents will no longer have to rely on street smarts or commerce to find relief in that area of town. On Thursday, City Council approved a resolution that will usher in the city’s first public restrooms, though they will be temporary for the time being.

The resolution, which will lead to two temporary facilities downtown, passed in a vote of 8-2-1, with Council members Don Zimmerman and Ellen Troxclair voting in opposition and Council Member Sheri Gallo abstaining.

Zimmerman made it clear that the plans for the test toilets were a bit too grandiose for his tastes. He made an unsupported motion to reduce the number of restroom facilities from two to one. He also expressed disbelief at the cost of the program — $272,000 total for a year’s worth of rental costs, cleaning and an attendant.

“The toilet is going to be staffed?” asked Zimmerman. He was told that yes, that would be the case.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo vigorously defended the temporary model, which will allow the city to test different locations around town before committing to what will ultimately be a permanent public bathroom downtown.

Gallo inquired whether the city had asked the Downtown Austin Alliance to pay for the cost of the restrooms, saying she was a “proponent of looking for partners to help fund” programs. She pointed out that the DAA does collect fees from downtown residents and said she would be uncomfortable with the city funding the program until that alternative was investigated. Gallo also suggested that the city could use hotel occupancy taxes to fund the facilities but was told that the program would not qualify for use of those funds.

“It’s a good idea. But I don’t know, necessarily, whether it’s a city responsibility,” said Gallo. “I support the idea, I just think the funding source should be considered.”

In response, Tovo noted that this was the second resolution on the topic but the first time the funding suggestion had been made. She said that it was not in the DAA budget and, moreover, that it was entirely appropriate for the city to fund the program.

“It has become a public health issue in the downtown area. It is impacting the quality of the water in our creeks. It is impacting the quality of the experience our visitors are speaking about when they come to the city of Austin,” said Tovo. “And I would argue it is not just a matter of public health, it is one of human dignity. Unfortunately, we have individuals who are living on the streets of our downtown, and they have no options other than to relieve themselves on the streets of our downtown.”

Council Member Ora Houston pointed out that the issue also extended to the elderly as well as downtown visitors who have children.

Tovo said that she would support future discussion about funding options for the permanent facilities, which will be modeled after the Portland Loo program in Oregon.

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