Temporary reprieve given to portable toilets in Montgomery County parks

By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 3, 2010

There will be a place to answer the call of nature in Montgomery County's parks this holiday weekend. The parks department has scuttled -- for now -- a cost-cutting plan to withdraw more than 100 portable toilets.

Last week, the department said it would get rid of toilets in the county's 80 parks to save $150,000 annually. But as the new fiscal year began Thursday, a parks spokeswoman said the department had canceled its request to Don's Johns of Chantilly to start removing the toilets.

The potty reprieve may be only temporary, however. Later this summer, parks users still may need to find other options, because the long-term prospects for portable toilets aren't looking very good.

An effort by the parks department to get private donors to pick up the tab for the portable toilets -- about $65 a month, per toilet, including a laminated sign recognizing the donor -- isn't doing well. Kelli Holsendolph, parks spokeswoman, said that the agency has received only one check to cover the cost of a portable toilet in Silver Spring's Nolte Park. About 12 others have expressed interest, she said. The plans to get rid of the toilets were shelved because, Holsendolph said, "We are very encouraged by the community support," she said, despite the low number of firm offers so far.

Holsendolph said the county's parks have about 135 portable toilets, including some designed to accommodate wheelchairs. Some parks have permanent restrooms, which are unaffected by the cost-cutting plan.

The potty problem drew attention last month after parks chief Mary Bradford pointed out that the approximately $150,000 line item for portable toilet rentals in her agency's budget had been cut as part of $13 million in reductions from the agency's $82 million budget request. Bradford said she had made all the cuts she could -- shrinking spending on such items as fertilizer and mowing; dropping many outside contracts; proposing a furlough plan with unionized employees -- before cutting the budget for portable toilets.

Conrad Harrell, vice president of Don's Johns, said he was surprised that Montgomery had made portable toilets a target.

"Every once in a while, someone looks at temporary restrooms, and says, 'They cost money and are an eyesore and we should get rid of them,' " he said.

"Then they find out that eliminating them in parks and recreation areas can be a disaster. There are disease transmissions and all sorts of awkward situations of families going to parks [unable to] find a place to go to the restroom.

"Montgomery County -- they have a little bit of money. They ought to be able to take care of this," he said. "Their parks are beautiful." He said Don's Johns expects to be paid for the continued use of the toilets, however long they are in Montgomery's parks.

The potty plan has set off a furor among elected officials, with Jennifer Hughes, a top aide to County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) warning Bradford that it would be a "terrible misjudgment" to withdraw the portable toilets from the county's heavily used parks. Hughes said their removal could endanger public health, although there is no explicit requirement in county law for portable toilets in the parks.

The cuts to the park system's budget are part of an overall $4.7 billion spending plan in which Montgomery, for the first time in 40 years, actually reduced its budget. Until this year, political battles in Montgomery usually have been waged over the size of budget increases.

But as the county and state faced major revenue shortfalls, Montgomery officials this year began layoffs and unpaid leaves or furloughs in nearly every agency. The $2 billion school system had some layoffs but no furloughs.

Besides the parks, other highly visible Montgomery departments are beginning to show the effects of cost cutting. The county library system is the only one in Maryland to opt out of a popular youth summer reading program. The libraries also have cut budgets for new books and have reduced hours of operation.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company