In addition to the inconvenience, national organizations warn that a lack of public bathrooms is an inequitable public health issue; St. Petersburg doesn’t have that problem.
According to the global Public Toilet Index (PTI), there are about eight public restrooms for every 100,000 Americans. However, St. Pete is flush with public toilets.
A public records request showed that city officials provide 218 bathrooms for residents and visitors. With a population of roughly 260,000, that equates to about 84 public restrooms per 100,000 people.
For perspective, New York City has four.
“We have a ton of them,” said Mike Jefferis, community enrichment administrator. “That’s for sure.”
Jefferis, director of parks and recreation, oversees 179 public restrooms. City Hall, the City Hall Annex and the Municipal Services Center provide another 39.
It remains unclear why the PTI ranks St. Pete 46th in the nation with 28 public toilets, just above Scottsdale, Arizona. Jefferis did note that not all the restrooms were open at once.
However, if over half of the city’s bathrooms were simultaneously offline, it would still pace the nation. Madison, Wisconsin, takes PTI’s top spot with 35 per 100,000 residents.
“Most of our park’s bathrooms are on electronic locks,” Jefferis explained. “They unlock at a certain time and lock at a certain time … So, there’s more consistency there. Some that we listed would only be available if there’s a programmatic element going on.”
The public safety issue is more apparent in cities with large homeless populations. In May, San Diego city officials partially attributed a deadly hepatitis A outbreak to a lack of clean bathrooms.
According to a Sept. 6 Yahoo News report, the U.S. was once awash with public restrooms anyone could use for a small fee. Those coin-operated toilets began disappearing in the 1970s due to a “campaign opposed to the idea that anyone should have to pay to meet their bodily needs.”
Most were not replaced. Cost is a significant hurdle, with the New York Post reporting in February that installing five high-tech toilets that retail for $185,000 each would cost local taxpayers $5.3 million.
New York City officials blamed the massive bill on installation costs. In addition, constant maintenance is not cheap.
“I think there are some health concerns that could occur with historically dirty bathrooms,” Jefferis said. “A park’s restroom is always going to be different … than a dining establishment. It’s apples and oranges. But we work hard to ensure they’re inspected and maintained regularly.”
St. Petersburg records state that workers spend 13.5 hours daily maintaining the 39 public restrooms in municipal buildings. At $15 per hour, that equates to $10,558 in annual labor costs.
The city then pays $2,565 monthly – or $30,780 yearly – to stock those bathrooms.
Jefferis said it is nearly impossible to ascertain those costs for his restrooms, which officials include in the larger parks and athletics maintenance budget. If the combined annual total for the municipal buildings ($41,338) remained the same for all bathrooms, the yearly expense would hit $231,492.
“I will tell you that it is very expensive because we have to touch the restrooms a lot,” Jefferis said. “You can clean a restroom, and five minutes later, it looks like it hasn’t been touched.”
He said special events and vandalism also contribute to the potty price tag. Maintenance costs soared during the pandemic due to the toilet paper shortage and the need for extra soap and hand sanitizer, Jefferis added.
In April, Governing Magazine blamed the lack of public restrooms on a “civic leadership class that is unwilling to address blatantly anti-social and often criminal activity.” Jefferis noted that some neighborhood associations resent or eschew public bathrooms for those reasons and said he “tries to be a good neighbor.”
He noted that the opposite is also true. Riviera Bay’s group did not want a public restroom in a park and changed their minds “several years later” when kids had no choice but to use neighboring properties.
Regarding public bathrooms attracting homeless residents and crime, he said, “I would never let a segment of our population prevent me from doing something in a park.” He also intentionally places restrooms in high-visibility areas.
“What I firmly believe in and what I’ve seen in my 30-year career is that appropriate park users drive out inappropriate park users,” Jefferis added. “When a community says ‘Hey, we really need to get something done about this,’ our first response is, ‘let’s get the neighborhood association out there. Let’s activate the park.'”
He said city officials believe parks are an equalizer. Jefferis noted that anyone can utilize the public amenity, regardless of income or housing status.
“I have no problem if a homeless person is using one of our public parks appropriately,” Jefferis said. “No problem with that whatsoever.”