What comes to mind when you think of Honolulu’s public restrooms? Chances are, your answer might merit some self-censorship.

Civil Beat toured public restrooms from Ala Moana to Waimanalo — we’ll call them the “dirty dozen” — to see what users, from near and far, had to say about them. Their answers weren’t pretty.

A tourist from Chicago didn’t even have words to describe what she thought about Waikiki’s public restrooms.

“Stick a swab in there, and see for yourself,” she said.

These bathrooms are some of Honolulu county’s most unpleasant facilities, not least because of the stench. Users complained about the lack of amenities and joked that there were mysterious substances on the floors and walls.

It’s gotten to the point where mayoral candidate Kirk Caldwell’s first promise if elected to office will be to equip all of Honolulu’s bathrooms with soap.

Indeed, the lack of soap made the discarded wads of soiled toilet paper, the clumps of hair, the festering garbage all the more difficult to stomach.

The Honolulu City Council gave about $31 million in operating funds to the Department of Parks and Recreation’s Maintenance Support Services and Grounds Maintenance divisions for the 2013 fiscal year. (The Council set aside about $30.5 million for the divisions last fiscal year.) Both of those divisions are responsible for providing repair, replacement and groundskeeping services for park facilities.

Of that money, $410,000 will also go toward routine plumbing projects and $406,550 will buy cleaning and toilet supplies, according to the office of City Council Budget Committee chair Ann Kobayashi. Funding for plumbing this fiscal year nearly doubled from that for fiscal year 2012.

The City Council for its capital budget also outlined a handful of specific projects that involve general improvement of park facilities, some of which entail restroom upgrades. That funding amounts to $9.6 million, roughly $2.5 million less than the amount earmarked for capital projects last fiscal year.

The city this fiscal year also set aside $200,000 for the department in additional capital and operating funding for the restrooms, noted Kobayashi. The funding, which went into effect July 1, will cover emergency repairs and other pressing maintenance needs.

But the Department of Parks and Recreation, not the City Council, ultimately decides how much to spend on restrooms.

So far, the department has dedicated $2 million to an improvement project for Ala Moana and Waikiki restrooms, according to department director Gary Cabato.

As for the soap, Kobayashi said that’s on the back-burner.

“[The department is] concentrating more on plumbing and toilets,” she said. “They have so many priorities that soap is last on the list. Having enough toilets is more important.”

Not Enough Groundskeepers

Most bathroom goers said that what Oahu’s public restrooms need most is better maintenance. Some said they had never seen groundskeepers at certain restrooms.

“They’re all dirty,” said “Shorty” Arrington, as he stood outside a restroom at Ala Moana Beach Park. “It’s unsanitary. There’s crap all over the place. The toilet seats, walls…you can’t even walk.”

“I never see workers here,” said Rick Bunney at Waialae Beach Park in Kahala. “The toilet here in the middle stall is in disrepair…The doors might be broken off for several months. It takes a long time.”

Visitors at Sandy Beach Park said the same.

“They’re pretty nasty,” said Kalei Alelua. “The seats are nasty. They’re never maintained.”

“Beach restrooms in general, they’re all pretty bad,” said Tiana Abbley. “They need a janitor.”

But many said the restrooms, particularly those in the Ala Moana and Waikiki areas, are simply overused, making it nearly impossible to keep the facilities up to standards.

According to Cabato, every public restroom is cleaned once per day at the minimum. Groundskeepers clean some of the more heavily used facilities as often as 16 times each day.

“When you have a lot of people, you have a lot of damages,” said Lei Mauga, a groundskeeper at Ala Moana Beach Park. “I try to do the best that I can.”

She said the bathroom adjacent to Ala Moana Beach Park’s snack bar is one of the worst in the area. Groundskeepers clean the facility three times each day — but the mess is constant, Mauga said.

Hawaii’s public restrooms — particularly those in beach parks — are in such bad shape largely because the supply of groundskeepers can’t meet the demand for those facilities, according to Cabato. Whereas parks on the mainland may not be as heavily used during winter months, parks here (with the exception of Hanauma Bay, which is closed Tuesdays) are visited year-round, he says.

“Ideally, we should have a groundskeeper at every park,” said Cabato. “But that’s almost unreasonable.”

The department oversees about 282 parks across the island, the majority of which have restrooms, said Cabato. But it only employs about 190 groundskeepers, meaning that about a third of the parks are unmanned and rely on ad-hoc mobile groundskeeping crews.

Restrooms Understocked and in Disrepair

Many restroom users complained about the broken facilities.

“The toilet seats aren’t even the right ones…everything’s backwards,” said Guy Orikasa.

“The urinal overflows and there’s a closed sign,” said Paul Nickelson, of Seattle.

Both were referring to the bathroom at San Souci Beach. Based on observation alone, this restroom and that at Makapuu Beach Park are some of Honolulu’s most neglected — and abused — facilities. (Those at Kapiolani Park and Kawaikui Beach Park in Aina Haina were the cleanest.)

But many agreed that bathrooms along Oahu’s western coast are in the worst shape. Councilmember Kobayashi even said that she hopes the Department of Parks and Recreation will choose to allot a substantial chunk of its funding toward improving bathrooms in Waianae.

Cabato said the city as of now has no plans furnish the bathrooms with basic amenities such as soap and paper towels.

Restrooms used to have both under former Mayor Jeremy Harris, Cabato said. “But what we found was that the paper towels were taken and the containers were vandalized,” he said. “We wanted to put them in places where there is large usage, like Kapiolani and Ala Moana. But there was a huge amount of vandalism. That costs us money to do.”

It’s the same with toilet paper, even. “We can put a roll of toilet paper in the next hour, and by the time [the groundskeepers] go in again, it’s gone,” said Cabato.

Many users also complained that the bathrooms had no doors. But Cabato says there’s a reason for that, too.

“As fast as we can put them up, they take them down,” he said. “That’s as best as we can do.”

As for the smell, Cabato says it’s often inevitable.

Bathrooms are sometimes in historic buildings, he said, meaning that the odor emits from years-old drainage pipes. Getting rid of the smell would require the total rehabilitation of those pipes, which would entail pulling off anything attached to the walls — primarily urinals — and removing all the calcium buildup.

Nadine Smith, a tourist from San Francisco visiting Waimanalo Beach Park, recommended that the city and county put perfume dispensers in the restrooms.

“Not all ladies are ladies,” she said. “When you get inside, even though it’s open, it’s still stinky. When it’s open you shouldn’t have to smell.”

But Cabato says the city tried doing that. It tried inserting disinfecting devices “in all different forms” in urinals and toilets. But just like the doors, the toilet paper, the soap, “They walk away.”

—Sanjeev Ranabhat made the video and contributed to this story.

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