By KEVIN NEVERS
This is a story about rotten kids, nature’s call, and public funds.
It’s not a new story. Go into any restroom facility in any municipal park in
the country, and there’s a good chance you’ll find that someone with a
pocket knife, a can of spray paint, or a lead pipe has been there before
That is, you’ll probably find that a vandal has been there before you only
if that restroom facility is actually open for use.
A case in point. In 1998 a handsome new restroom facility was opened on the
Prairie Duneland Trail at an approximate cost of $50,000, a portion of a $1
million federal grant obtained by the Town of Chesterton to build the trail.
It was a nice facility, cedar constructed, and a great amenity for
bicyclists and pedestrians. Six months later, after vandals had targeted it
repeatedly, the facility was closed forever and for eight years has been a
“People kept ripping it up,” Park Superintendent Bruce Mathias told the
Chesterton Tribune. “I can’t put a guy there 24 hours a day.”
Two weeks ago a crew began gutting that facility. Its parts and plumbing
will be cannibalized for use elsewhere, and a pair of portable chemical
toilets will be installed—and secured—in the shell.
The Parks and Recreation Department (PRD) is hardly alone in its ongoing
battle against restroom vandals. Mathias cited the case of an extensive bike
trail in Colorado on which permanent restroom facilities were likewise
replaced with portable chemical toilets after it was determined to be
cheaper simply to empty the chemical toilets periodically than it would be
continually to repair the vandalized restrooms.
Portable toilets are one solution. Another is a virtually indestructible
facility, as Park Board Member Vince Emanuele recalls the Chicago Park
District’s installing at one time. “Those park restrooms were almost
unbelievable,” he said. “All-concrete construction, even the urinals. They
were basically like what you would put into a prison cell. But the cost of
doing that today is prohibitive.”
Forget vandal-proof, though. Just try vandal-resistant. As it happens,
Mathias said that he got his idea for the design of the restroom facility at
Dunes Friendship Land—built with a portion of a $50,000 Build Indiana grant
awarded in 1997—from highly robust prison commodes. That facility
incorporates an all-stainless steel construction, from the toilets to the
urinals, from the sinks to the push buttons. And the restrooms there have
mostly stymied the vandals (although they were set on fire once).
Of course, the restroom facility on the Prairie Duneland Trail, isolated and
remote as it was, proved a soft target from the beginning, difficult for
police officers to patrol on a regular basis and easy for vandals to damage
without undue fear of being caught in the act. The restroom facility at
Friendship Land and that one at Dogwood Park East are both more visible and
accordingly less prone to vandalism.
Still, neither one is open on a 24-hour basis or—for that matter—during
anything like normal business hours, nor probably could it be, given a
vandal’s capacity for mischief in an empty park even in broad daylight. As
Emanuele noted, a vandal may prefer to break things in the middle of the
night but he can clog a toilet or sink anytime. Thus, for example, the
restroom facility at Friendship Land is open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. during
the summer program, at times on weekends, or when the shelter has been
rented and a park employee is there to monitor it. The one at Dogwood East
is usually open for soccer and softball games or special events. For park
users who need to answer nature’s call when those restrooms are closed,
there’s a portable toilet at both parks.
As part of the $2 million general obligation bond issue floated last year to
fund park improvements, two new restroom facilities are planned for Dogwood,
at a total cost of $100,000, one to replace the old facility at Dogwood East
and a new one at Dogwood West. Although those facilities have not yet been
designed, Mathias said, they will similarly incorporate the vandal-resistant
all-stainless construction used in the restrooms at Friendship Land. But
they too will only be open on a limited basis.
“It’s terrible,” Emanuele conceded, when a parent with a child in desperate
need of the potty finds the restroom at Friendship Land or Dogwood locked.
“And it’s a shame. It’s only a few people who inconveniencing everyone
For his part Town Council Member Mike Bannon, R-5th—who originally broached
the idea of floating a general obligation bond issue for park
improvements—voiced his confidence in the Park Board’s ability to balance
the security of the new restrooms with their usability, given the
significant price tag attached to those facilities. “I’m most certain,” he
said, “that the Park Board will do whatever it can to make them easy to use
for the public and at the same time to limit vandalism.”
Has the PRD considered forgoing permanent restroom facilities at Dogwood for
a bank of portable chemical toilets? “We weighed that,” Mathias said, “but
it’s a cost-effective thing.” Maintaining a single chemical toilet costs
$110 per month, maintaining a handicapped accessible one $180 per month.
Install more than one or two to accommodate the volume at Dogwood and pretty
soon you’re talking serious money. “The others are permanent and you don’t
have to mess with them.”
It will come as no surprise that the vandalism of park property—any park
property, from picnic tables to playground equipment to shelters—is fairly
commonplace. Mathias was unable to estimate the annual cost to the PRD of
repairs and cleanup but he did say that 20 man-hours per week could probably
be devoted to picking up the pieces left by vandals.
Unfortunately, in most cases the PRD is forced to eat those costs, whatever
they are, with moneys from its General Repair and Maintenance Fund. Jim
Anton of Anton Insurance Agency, the Town of Chesterton’s agent, explained
that the town’s policy carries a $1,000 per occurrence deductible, and very
few incidents of vandalism—however aggressive and destructive they may
be—ever hit that threshold. The ongoing vandalism of the Prairie Duneland
Trail restroom facility never did, he noted, and no claim was ever filed.
Anton also said that, even in those cases where damage does exceed $1,000,
the town needs to consider the wisdom of filing all or any of the claims,
since the more claims filed the more likely Chesterton’s carrier is to
increase the deductible.
For the record, the Chesterton Police Department took a town-wide total of
174 reports of vandalism in 2004, a total of 154 in 2005, and through July 1
of this year a total of 92. Police Chief George Nelson characterized
vandalism as an especially difficult crime to investigate: usually committed
under cover of darkness, at times and in places without witnesses, with
little physical evidence left at the scene.
“If it’s just a random act, like most of it is, you’ve got to be lucky,”
Nelson said. “You’ve got to catch them in the act and then hope like heck,
if there’s been a recent rash, they start fessing up to everything else
that’s been going down.”
It’s unclear whether anyone was ever charged with the vandalism of the
Prairie Duneland Trail restroom facility. Nelson was unable to find any 1998
case report at all in his department’s computer system on any incident of
vandalism there. At the time, moreover, juvenile cases were not routinely
archived in the computer system, he said, and in any event had a juvenile
been detained in connection with the vandalism, the adjudication of the case
would not be a matter of public record.