The City of Sacramento is looking to send $50,000 down the drain. Literally.
McKinley Park in East Sac is facing a hypodermic needle problem in its bathrooms, and the solution may be an industrial-strength garbage disposal.
On Monday afternoon, Debra Payne was enjoying McKinley Park's playground with her grandsons.
"This is a great asset here, this park," said McKinley, a longtime Sacramento resident.
Conveniently located within steps of the playground are two public restrooms, which are locked overnight and cleaned daily by the city.
"They're pretty well-maintained, and if they need to go," she said, nodding toward her grandsons. "I think it's nice to have a bathroom there for emergencies."
But below the bathrooms is a sewage pump with a problem.
As Sacramento Parks and Rec director Chris Conlin explains, "that pump has been getting clogged up repeatedly, and it's getting clogged primarily by needles that are being flushed down the toilets."
Because McKinley Park lies in a low part of the city, topographically, the bathrooms need a pump to ensure sewage from those bathrooms makes its way to the actual sanitary sewer. Without that pump, the toilets won't work, at best, and back up, at worst.
Twice in the last few months, however, the pump has stopped working altogether, forcing the city to close these restrooms for days each time.
"It costs about $4,500 each time to go in, clean out that pump, repair it," Conlin said. "You have to have people with HAZMAT training because they're handling needles and all of that, so it was really becoming an issue."
The city asked around other places with drug use problems - prisons - and got the solution: an industrial strength grinder.
"You can imagine it's sort of like a garbage disposal but a super garbage disposal that can pretty much grind up anything that gets put down into it," Conlin said.
The hypodermic needles piling up in the McKinley Park bathroom's sewage pump are due to "a drug abuse problem, and it's pretty big in the city right now," City Councilman Jeff Harris told ABC10.
The park is in his district.
"We can't solve that problem by manipulating our bathroom, but we do have to keep this bathroom in play," he said. "It's really essential to the functioning of McKinley Park, which is our most heavily used park."
The grinder's price tag is $50,000, which may seem steep - but so is another option.
"There's a possibility of doing a restroom attendant," Conlin explained. "We tried that at McKinley during the baseball season. It had some good effect, but it cost about $350 a day for that one particular restroom, so you can imagine that multiplied over the course of 365 days a year."
The $350 a day, times 365 days, is $127,750, more than 2.5 times the cost of the grinder.
"Plus, the fact that the restroom attendant doesn't necessarily stop somebody from putting things down the toilet to begin with," Conlin added.
When ABC10 described the proposed grinder system to parents at the playground on Monday, some expressed concerns the money could be used elsewhere. The funds would come from an existing pool of money set aside for park improvement. City Council members vote on it at their Tuesday meeting. If passed, the grinder could be installed within half a year, said Conlin.
Some people question why the city couldn't just install sharps disposal boxes.
Conlin said his department already tried that.
"Unfortunately, even when we used armored, very solid ones, they tend to get ripped off the wall and destroyed," Conlin said. "You're dealing with people that are inherently irrational if they're using these drugs, so they tend to be destructive. So that was not successful at all. In fact, we wound up incurring more damage by putting the box in there.
And putting a sharps box outside the bathroom meant the box went unused, Conlin said.
Other parents at the playground thought the proposed $50,000 grinder was a good idea.
"If installing this system saves money for the city, I'm always all for that," Payne said.
It's a solution for a specific problem. Drug abuse, on the other hand, is considerably more complicated.
Read more about the proposed grinder solution on the city council agenda HERE.
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