Public washroom delivers financial return
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Much has been said lately about the social and humanitarian benefits provided by Amoowigamig, the public toilet that opened last June at 715 Main St. The three-storey facility provides a drinking fountain, public sinks, a foot-washing station, toilets and an office with phone and internet access, along with outreach workers able to connect those in need with supports for housing, addictions and more.
However, very little attention has been paid to Amoowigamig’s economic benefits. Public urination and defecation are obviously a health concern, and pretty bad for business too. But what’s the financial return of Amoowigamig to the City of Winnipeg?
It was $874,289 to build, all of which came from donations and federal grants. Even if the city had covered the entire bill, it would have amounted to less than 0.04 per cent of its approximately $2.3-billion combined operating and capital budget last year. That barely qualifies as a rounding error. Consider it a small bet.
The city’s only financial contribution was to budget $50,000 for operations and $200,000 to have a community organization staff it with outreach workers for 10 hours per day.
The public service reports that over the seven months of operation last year, Amoowigamig welcomed more than 20,000 users. Thousands of harm-reduction supplies were distributed, and a sharps receptacle diverts a steady volume of used needles from the streets.
On-site support staff saved six lives by administering Narcan, and interactions with community members have provided critical information about the existence and whereabouts of firearms, leading to the apprehension of illicit weapons by the Winnipeg Police Service.
On a weekly basis, dozens of people visit Amoowigamig to access identification, health-care services, employment information and cultural connection. City staff report that support workers at Amoowigamig helped secure housing for 30 previously unsheltered individuals.
It’s an excellent example of spending money that does more than one thing simultaneously. Amoowigamig is not only a place “to go,” it keeps downtown cleaner, it saves lives, it improves public safety and it helps address homelessness.
Research for At Home/Chez Soi from 2017 showed that each person experiencing homelessness costs the public $45,585 per year in Winnipeg. Just the city’s portion of those expenses, ambulance and police, amounts to $8,109.
By finding housing for 30 people, this toilet has helped the city save nearly $245,000 per year in future emergency services costs.
By just this single calculable benefit, we’ve received a 97 per cent return on our investment, in real dollars saved. It’s certainly partly why the public service reports that “it is difficult to overstate the value of Amoowigamig.” From a purely financial point of view, this is a no-brainer.
So it’s difficult to understand why, given the success of this small bet, the initially proposed 2023 budget would have resulted in cuts to its operating hours from 10 to eight hours per day.
You read that right. Only after facing public outcry did EPC vote this week to find the $38,000 needed to avoid cutting hours, rather than the logical response of investing an additional $450,000 to increase them to 24 hours-7 days.
For context, that’s 0.018 per cent of the proposed 2023 budget, on something providing a minimum 97 per cent ROI. And we won’t find it.
Mayor Scott Gillingham was recently quoted as saying it’s simply too late in the budget process to find $450,000. The public has only had a week to provide feedback on the budget, and yet it’s too late to make a 0.018 per cent change to it?
We’ve managed to find $2.8 million to advance planning and design for the Kenaston Boulevard widening and Chief Peguis Trail extension, projects for which we haven’t yet confirmed the economic value; it would be premature to budget anything to planning and design. And it would be downright financially irresponsible to do so if it takes money away from a project that has already demonstrated outstanding economic value.
The answer is simple: reduce the amount budgeted to Kenaston/Peguis in the capital budget by $450,000, reduce an equivalent in cash-to-capital in the operating, and put it into Amoowigamig.
This is how we innovate and improve our city, and most importantly, how we get real, low-risk returns to get ourselves out of a financial quagmire — not with one or two megaprojects costing millions or billions of dollars, but by making small bets, the cost of each amounting to nothing more than a rounding error in our annual budget, allowing us to fail fast, fail cheaply, learn from our experiences, discontinue the losing bets and double-down on the winners like Amoowigamig. Reducing risk, while increasing community wealth and capacity, and improving lives for all Winnipeggers.
Michel Durand-Wood lives in Elmwood and has been writing about municipal issues since 2018. He blogs at DearWinnipeg.com and writes a monthly column for La Liberté. He’s just a guy, in love with a city, asking it to make better use of his tax dollars.