D.M. workers flush at suburban homes, city watches $2.2M go down drain

The city of Des Moines has lost $2.2 million in sewer fees because Des Moines workers who live in the suburbs and are working at home due to the coronavirus pandemic aren't flushing in the capital city. (Photo courtesy of publicdomainpictures.net)

The city of Des Moines has discovered local office workers flushed $2.2 million out of the municipal budget because they are working at home and not using toilets in the capital city.

Des Moines City Manager Scott Sanders said this is one budgetary issue he didn’t expect, one that brought a sense of urgency.

When the city started adding up how much money the COVID-19 pandemic would cost the city coffers (the total: $38 million over two years), Sanders was surprised to see a projected drop of $2.2 million in sewage fees for the current budget year. 

During an interview Wednesday, a reporter asked if flushing was just one more thing people had given up during the pandemic. 

“That was probably in the category of surprising to us as well,” Sanders said in an even, serious tone. “What we believe is that with office buildings shut down and some portion of those workers working from home, they are actually out in the suburbs,” Sanders said. 

You tend to flush where you are. And when the suburbanites took care of business at home, they inadvertently piped their sewage fees to the suburban governments, not to Des Moines city government.

Even some Des Moines students live in the suburbs and — well, it’s the same phenomenon, Sanders said. 

Suburban flushes supplanted Des Moines office flushes. And while that might be great news for Tom Hadden, the city manager out in West Des Moines, for Sanders it was as welcome as an empty toilet paper display in a discount store.

Sanders said he is optimistic a significant share of these remote-flushing workers will return to their Des Moines offices next year, ending the low flow of sewage fees to the capital city. 

Perry Beeman
Senior reporter Perry Beeman has nearly 40 years of experience in Iowa journalism and has won national awards for environmental and business writing. He has written for The Des Moines Register and the Business Record, where he also served as managing editor. He also is former editorial director of Grinnell College. He co-authored the recently published book, "The $80 Billion Gamble," which details the lottery-rigging case of Eddie Tipton.