Not a porta-potty to pee in: parkgoers bemoan missing toilets

Parks commissioners refuse to undo $60,000, 92-porta-potty cut; running clubs may sponsor logoed biffs

Retired Fulton Elementary School teacher Peter Nekola of Kingfield said he has to plan his daily walks around Lake Harriet a little more carefully these days, now that the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board has removed all the portable toilets.

"I take my little green pills every morning," he said, referring to his blood pressure medication. "They make me urinate more."

He and his wife Sandra Nekola would like the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board to bring back the toilets, they said. Peter Nekola especially wants one on Harriet's south end, on the opposite side of the lake from the permanent restrooms near the concession stand, he said.

The Park Board used to have 46 chemical toilets year-round, said Eric Rehm, a maintenance environmental program coordinator. During peak summer season, it has 92 units at 72 different sites. More than 25 percent of the park system's chemical toilet locations are around or near the Chain of Lakes.

This spring, the Park Board pulled all its chemical toilets in a cost-saving move, in response to anticipated state funding cuts. It removed the 50-plus toilets at a time it would normally be adding more, Rehm said.

Pulling the potties should save $60,000 this year, according to Park Board estimates. It represents a small fraction of the $3.5 million it needed to cut to balance its 2003 budget, yet the decision has drawn a disproportionate share of constituent complaints, according to Park Board members.

Park Board member John Erwin said toilet complaints have surpassed all others he receives. Park Board President Bob Fine, who represents the Lake Harriet area, said he gets more complaints about planned wading pool closures, but chemical toilets are in second.

Erwin said the toilets are a basic service the park board should provide even in tight financial times. At the April 16 Park Board meeting he tried to restore funding, using salary savings from vacant positions. The motion failed, 2 yes votes to 6 nos, with Park Board member Annie Young casting the other yes vote, and Fine absent.

The board would reconsider its budget cuts at its May 21 meeting, after the legislature adjourns and the Board better knows its financial picture, Fine said.

Though the toilets are a relatively low-cost item, some argued that waiting to restore funding was the fair thing to do. Park Board member Walt Dziedzic said that the Board had delayed other funding decisions, such as installing air conditioning in some park centers.

Neighborhood groups would pay for the air conditioning with Neighborhood Revitalization Program money, but the Park Board would have to pay the increased electrical costs, he said. He wanted to review issues such as air conditioning, wading pools and the chemical toilets at the same time.

Park Board member Vivian Mason, whose district includes Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake, voted against immediate chemical toilet funding.

"The thinking of the majority of the board is that it is a critical issue because it affects so many park users -- but that it was good that it came up as a temporary cut because it gave the public the realization that we have some really critical issues," she said. "I frankly believe we will find a way to restore them once the heavy season begins in June."

Dave Coyne, an employee at Marathon Sports, 2312 W. 50th St., said he has talked to a lot of runners upset with the lack of chemical toilets.

Mason and Don Siggelkow, assistant superintendent of administration, said some running clubs had expressed an interested in sponsoring individual chemical toilets. In return, they would have their logo on the side, prominently displayed, Siggelkow said. The Park Board did not have firm commitments as of the Journal's deadline.

"I don't think long-term it is the right way to go," Siggelkow said. "But it could work in the short-term. Any is better than none at this point."

Heidi Miler, office manager for the 3,000-member Minnesota Distance Running Association, said the organization is investigating sponsoring a few toilets in critical locations, such as Lake of the Isles, River Road or Minnehaha Parkway. It would also try to get other running clubs involved in sponsorships.

Walk around Lake Harriet and ask about the missing potties and residents give a variety of opinions. Some people didn't realize they were gone. Some said they don't like using them and always planned ahead.

One woman strolling the lake said pulling the toilets from beach areas would only encourage kids to pee in the lake.

Ann Kita, who lives two blocks from Lake Harriet, said losing the portable toilets would lead to problems. It wasn't like closing a fishing dock -- making people walk a little further to get to the next dock, she said.

"If you have to use the Porta-Pottie, you can't walk to the next lake," she said. "It will be like the old days. You'll have people going in the trees."