Brattleboro debates the necessity vs. nuisance of public restrooms

A sign at Brattleboro’s Transportation Center lists prohibited behavior in a downtown without 24-hour public restrooms. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

BRATTLEBORO — When local leaders first decided to rent portable restrooms in 2019 for a downtown with few public options, it seemed like a good idea. Until, they discovered, it wasn’t.

“These locations quickly became attractive nuisances where criminal and drug activity was undertaken,” interim Town Manager Patrick Moreland said of a plan that cost $1,000 a month in tax money.

Local leaders, discontinuing the portable restrooms this year, now are seeking a less problematic and more permanent solution — one that Town Meeting voters could see as early as March.

The lack of such facilities is a national challenge, according to a recent report that found the United States has only eight public toilets per 100,000 people — tied with Botswana and much lower than top-ranked Iceland with 56 per 100,000 residents.

Brattleboro sparked headlines on the issue in 2019 when residents complained about people without housing or with alcohol and drug issues turning to trees in downtown parks.

“Town employees and others who are maintaining these spaces have found, particularly this summer, significant amounts of human waste,” then Town Manager Peter Elwell told the selectboard three years ago. “We view this as an urgent community need, not just as a matter of human dignity but as a matter of public health.”

Municipal government installed portable restrooms at three downtown locations, only to find usage drop when the state paid to house people without shelter during the Covid-19 pandemic.

With the return of a sense of normalcy this year, residents asked if the portable restrooms would be back, too. But the interim town manager said the problems surrounding them weren’t limited to crime.

“Cleaning is a very challenging job,” Moreland told the selectboard. “There’s no running water at these locations and no place where you can store consumables like hand towels or sanitizer or toilet paper.”

The town also can’t find people willing to scrub and restock them. As a result, local leaders won’t continue to rent portable restrooms and instead will study the feasibility of installing permanent ones.

“There could still be illicit activity done in a fixed bathroom,” Moreland said. “But the cleaning regimen and storage capability is altogether different.”

The municipally owned downtown Transportation Center has public restrooms, although they’re only open weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. because of problems when not staffed. But that hasn’t deterred the selectboard from expressing its support for a study of 24-hour options.

Said member Daniel Quipp: “I would personally be very interested in us moving in a direction where we explore possibilities for good locations.”

And colleague Jessica Gelter: “Not only is it a human dignity issue, but it makes community events more accessible.”

And colleague Elizabeth McLoughlin: “They are a civic amenity. In addition to serving the population of the town, visitors utilize them.”

Town staff is working to present the selectboard with proposals as well as possibilities for funding with federal American Rescue Plan Act money.

“It’s really a municipal policy question — do we want to pay for 24-hour bathrooms?” Selectboard Chair Ian Goodnow said. “I think it makes a lot of sense for all the reasons stated.”

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Kevin O'Connor

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