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Toilet troubles

Paso Robles flushes $28,000 on a bathroom redesign

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It would have been a throne room to rival the Taj Mahal, but the Paso Robles City Council decided on Feb. 7 to scale back plans for a new restroom at City Park. Don’t worry, though. It will still be pretty big, awfully nice, and really expensive.

The city originally planned to refurbish the existing facility but later decided to tear the whole thing down and build a new one that would include more than 20 fixtures and cover 1,400 square feet—more than twice the size of the current structure.

- YESTERDAY’S JOHNS:  Paso Robles city officials are under court order to renovate City Park’s public restroom to make it more accessible to the handicapped. Officials have decided to tear the whole thing down and build a bigger building for about $550,000. -  - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • YESTERDAY’S JOHNS: Paso Robles city officials are under court order to renovate City Park’s public restroom to make it more accessible to the handicapped. Officials have decided to tear the whole thing down and build a bigger building for about $550,000.

When the estimated cost of construction came in at more than $800,000, officials told the architects at Ravatt-Albrecht and Associates, Inc. to go back to the drawing board and produce a smaller project. The new design calls for 1,080 square feet and six fewer toilets and sinks. It’s now expected to cost a mere $550,000 to build, a sum the council could stomach. Still, all that extra design work, toilet erasing, and general back and forth cost city planners $28,298 more than would have been necessary had they kept their sights small in the first place. To date, the city has spent $59,000 on the new restroom, and nary a bowl has been flushed.

Councilmen Ed Steinbeck and Nick Gilman sit on the ad hoc committee that oversees the project, and Steinbeck admitted fault at the Feb. 7 meeting for letting the bathroom design balloon over budget.

“All the bid responders assumed it would be a small project,” Steinbeck told New Times. “But we started thinking, ‘If we’re going to redo it, we might as well do it right and make it more usable.’”

Steinbeck said the new facility should accommodate the crowds for weekend activities like Art in the Park, but portable toilets will still be necessary for the annual Wine Festival and other mega-events.

Other council members were less than thrilled about the extra costs associated with the bathroom redesign.

“We’re paying more for less,” John Hamon said.

The crappers in question are currently housed in a 600-square-foot building that was deemed non-compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) after Paso Robles lost a lawsuit in 2010. The city has until June of this year to break ground on construction and until Jan. 8, 2013, to finish the project.

With deadlines looming, the city had no choice but to accept the planning hiccup, approve the latest design, shell out the dough, and move on.

“I don’t like it, but it is what it is,” Mayor Duane Picanco said.

New Times ran the basic specs of the project by local contractor Dan Brebe. While he wasn’t privy to all the details, he said plumbers typically charge $1,000 to $1,500 per fixture and that buildings average $125 per square foot. Even if the cost is adjusted up for a nice commercial finish, Brebes said the whole job should cost less than $100,000.

“Anything over that would be incredibly expensive,” said Brebe.

So how can a 1,080-square-foot bathroom cost a cool half million?

An architect by day and councilman at night, Gilman blamed a portion of the high cost on “prevailing wage,” a state policy that demands all workers be paid a premium rate for government projects. When combined with the extra paperwork necessary to prove compliance, he said, prevailing wage usually inflates the cost of public construction to be 25 percent more than its private counterpart.

“It chokes me up to see how expensive public projects can get,” Gilman said.

Brebe’s experience with government construction, though limited, puts the inflation figure closer to 100 percent. He recalled a job in Morro Bay that he bid for around $8,000. When the other offers were made public, he found that his closest competitor would have charged $20,000 for the same work.

“I could have put a one in front of my estimate and still gotten the job,” he said.

Gilman admitted that a basic bathroom of comparable size could be built for a fraction of the cost, but this bathroom won’t be basic. A brick masonry façade will complement nearby historic buildings like the Carnegie Library, and folks will get to drop poo bombs on bullet-proof toilets. They’re pricey, but the initial expense should reduce vandalism and cut maintenance costs in the long run. Freda Berman of the Paso Robles Public Works Department explained that improved drainage, epoxy-coated floors, and a built-in power washer will also make maintenance easier. Gilman said such a project should cost around $400,000 in the private sector.

The construction comes at a bad time. City coffers are still low after several years of recession, and—worse yet—California recently revoked money for redevelopment agencies across the state. Paso Robles had hoped to use such funds to cover about two thirds of the court-ordered ADA improvements, according to Gilman.

“It’s up in the air now,” he said. “We’ve got our fingers crossed that the projects will be recognized as a prior commitment, and we’ll be able to use the redevelopment funds.”

The lawsuit that prompted the remodel was brought against Paso Robles by wheelchair-bound citizens Russell Peterson and Suzanne Smiley. It also forces the city to upgrade public buildings and replace sections of sidewalks, ramps, and curbs throughout City Park and across 36 blocks of Spring Street.

A 2010 report by National Access Consultants, LLC estimated the total costs for ADA compliance to be $2.5 million spread over five years, but that report listed the costs of City Park bathroom at just $70,000.

Calendar Editor Nick Powell can be reached at npowell@newtimesslo.com.

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