Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Parks Department Planning to Improve Restroom Access This Summer

Department unable to open all public restroom facilities in recent years, prompting resident complaints to county supervisors.

By - Apr 26th, 2023 11:33 am
Wilson Park bathroom. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Wilson Park bathroom. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Milwaukee County Parks is planning to open as many public bathrooms as it can in 2023, a welcome change for those who have encountered a locked door in recent years.

Since 2020, public bathrooms at county parks have been closed because of public health measures during the COVID-19 pandemic and also because the department simply didn’t have enough staff to open, close and maintain them.

Out of 156 parks in the system, 77 have permanent restroom facilities. Most are opened seasonally, with the plumbing turned on in the spring and off in the fall. There are 14 parks with year-round facilities and nine parks with facilities operated by other public and private entities, like The Dock at Bradford Beach and the City of Greenfield in Kulwicki Park.

Restroom facilities are a necessity in public parks, lest people find other places to relieve themselves. At the April meeting of the county board’s Committee on Parks and Culture, Supervisor Steven Shea made this observation, saying, “If we’re gonna have things like beer gardens, we have to have open restrooms. You can’t expect in the third decade of the 21st-century people to go into the woods.”

The parks department was before the committee that day with a report on restroom openings for the system in 2023, created at the request of the board. Shea said he received a number of complaints in 2022 about closed facilities.

Peter Bratt, director of operations and skilled trades, told the committee that the department was working to improve restroom availability this year, adding that the department will also continue to use portable toilets to supplement restroom availability.

Parks reported that on top of staffing and the pandemic, vandalism has been a problem. Bratt showed the committee of a ceramic urinal smashed to pieces. Parks is planning a tiered system whereby the amount of time a bathroom is closed increases each time there is an incident of vandalism: One week for the first incident, two weeks for the second, one month for a third, and the rest of the season for a fourth.

“I hate to say it, but this happens far too often in our system,” said Bratt said.

Restrooms have not been the only casualty of the seasonal worker shortage. In 2021, Parks canceled the annual July 3 fireworks show citing a shortage of workers for the event. The county has also not had a fully staffed aquatics system for years, with pools going unopened and beaches unguarded, though the department expects to have more guards on staff for the 2023 season.

James Tarantino, deputy director of parks previously called the struggles with lifeguard staffing “a bellwether for what’s happening to all of our seasonal workforce.”

The problem of staffing and therefore restroom access is, in part, downstream from the decades of budget cuts the department has absorbed. Where once the parks system had more than 1,000 employees maintaining and managing the system, it now has less than 400.

Categories: MKE County, Parks, Weekly

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