Posted by: bkivey | 3 June 2013

Loo Are You

Let’s do a thought experiment. Let’s say you’re given a job in your organization that maybe you didn’t ask for, but there you are. The position comes with clearly defined objectives and expectations, and it’s your job to make those happen. The project skill set isn’t necessarily your forte, but you’ve done well with other assignments, and the goals for the current project are rather modest.

I suspect most people would buckle down, learn the job, and do their best to make a good showing. Most people want to do well not only to improve their chances of keeping their job, but out of self-respect. The respect of others, particularly in the work environment, is a powerful motivator.

Unless, apparently, you work in the public sector.

The lead story in the 15 May edition of the Willamette Weekwe learn the baffling but rather familiar story of the Portland Loo, and the city’s efforts to monetize it. The Portland Loo is a stainless steel public toilet designed to provide universal access to facilities for the public. There are 7 installed in downtown Portland open 24/7/365. They are durable, easy to clean, and haven’t suffered the ignominious fate of Seattle’s attempt at public facilities.

They’re also $90,000 a copy, and cost some $15,000 each annually to keep clean.

The Loo is one of former Commissioner Randy Leonard’s vanity projects, and like most of his ideas, the citizenry is stuck with the bill long after he’s left office. When he pushed the City Council to fund the Loo’s, no money was allocated to clean them.

Such oversight is distressingly common in public projects. Exhibit A in Oregon is the Wapato county jail. $60 million to build in 2004, and no money to operate it. To date it has never housed an inmate.

The concept of life-cycle cost is one I first encountered in engineering school, and one that most people use, even if they don’t call it that. When a person buys a car, they’re also looking at operating costs and trade-in value. No one buys a car and then expects to operate it for no additional money. On one level I understand why politicians and bureaucrats would want to downplay life cycle costs; it makes the project price more attractive and an easier sell. And because most people have better things to do than ride herd on their elected officials, after the hoopla has died government can put it’s hand out for operating expenses.

The city of Portland has been trying another route. The idea was to sell the patented Portland Loo to other cities in an effort to offset their own Loo’s operating expenses. Enter Anne Peterson, the city employee Portland put in charge of selling the Loo. Ms. Peterson and a staff of two ‘marketing consultants’ are tasked with selling four Loo’s annually to offset maintenance costs, or eight per year to cover the maintenance and the cost of her office. Since the city began marketing efforts in 2010, it’s sold three. Not three per year. Three, total.

Ms. Peterson’s background is not in sales, or fabrication, although she has considerable project management experience. She was handed the job and told to run with it. Lack of expertise isn’t really a problem; a motivated person can learn to do just about anything, and we’ve all been in Ms. Peterson’s position.

Ms. Peterson’s real problem is not that she didn’t ask for the job, she doesn’t care about it.  From the WW story:

Peterson doesn’t do any outreach, and she doesn’t see her mission as entrepreneurial.

“Our goal is not to sell loos,” she says. “That’s a strategy. Our goal is to maintain a public good. And it’s an undefinable public good. Randy Leonard’s office took it on as a hallmark project. And like many hallmark projects, it created issues that weren’t anticipated.”

So we have a person being paid in excess of $76,000 (plus benefits) in public money, whose primary job is to sell Loo’s, saying “Our goal is not to sell loos”

If a salesman in the private sector had made that statement, their job life expectancy would be measured in nanoseconds. It’s very apparent that Ms. Peterson has decided that she doesn’t want to do her job, and as there are no consequences, she’s not motivated to even look interested. She’s getting paid what many people would consider good money to do, what, exactly? Her boss is at least as culpable, as it stretches the bounds of credulity to think they’re unaware of Ms. Peterson’s attitude.

An ‘undefinable public good’? At $90,000 a pop and $15,000 to clean annually, I’d say that’s pretty ‘definable’. ‘Created issues that weren’t anticipated’? That’s rather disingenuous. I guarantee the city Engineering department ‘anticipated’ the cleaning and maintenance costs; if the politicians chose not to disclose them, that doesn’t make them unanticipated.

The Portland Loo situation is a textbook example of what happens when the wrong people are put in a job. It also illustrates one of the intractable problems of the public sector: little to no accountability. Ms. Peterson is in line to be assigned to another city job later this year, and I hope she’s a better fit. Meanwhile, a lot of taxpayer dollars are being spent to no good purpose.

Cleaning the Toilet

I was struck by the $15,000 annual cleaning cost for the Loo. That’s just cleaning; maintenance is a separate item. The installation allows for a hose bibb, and the interior of the toilet is as simple as a toilet can be. The article states that the Loo’s are cleaned twice daily. I can’t imagine this involves much more than hosing the interior out and maybe replacing the toilet paper. For this the city is charged about $40 per day per toilet. The toilets are all reasonably close together, so I’d think it might take 3 – 4 hours to make a round. Assuming cleaning rounds are spaced 12 hours apart, you’d probably need 3 people to cover the split shifts and days off.

Assuming the cleaner is paid $12/hr., that’s about $100 in labor to cover a day. Add in taxes, and let’s say $150/day for labor. In round numbers, the contractor is grossing $280/day to clean the toilets, when the only real expenses are a vehicle, a hose, toilet paper, and cleaning supplies. You could carry everything you’d need on a modified bicycle.

It may be that Portland requires the use of union labor, which would diminish the profit margin considerably, but still, it wouldn’t be bad.


Other companies have taken note of the Loo’s $90,000 price tag. A company in Roseburg, OR, has started producing an outdoor toilet with many of the Portland Loo’s design features, for just over $38,000. And I bet there sales staff is somewhat more motivated.

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