A Tacoma city councilman wants to get abandoned shopping carts under control by imposing penalties on large grocery stores and retailers who have them taken from their property and don’t take steps to stop the theft.
Councilman Ryan Mello presented a sample ordinance to the city’s Public Safety, Human Services and Education committee last week. He hopes to reduce the blight caused by shopping carts dumped in neighborhoods, such as the central area where he lives.
“Just like we spend a lot of time cleaning up graffiti, this should be treated the same,” the first-term councilman said in a recent interview.
Mello also wants to create incentives for stores to install electronic systems that help confine carts to their property.
The committee was lukewarm to the proposal and sent it back for more work. Councilman Joe Lonergan was troubled by the idea of slapping grocers and retailers with fines and extra costs.
“It sounds like the punishment is all on the business and not on the thief,” he said.
Under Mello’s proposal, the city would sign a contract with a private vendor to retrieve stray carts within 24 hours of being notified. The business that owns a cart would be charged $25 to $100 upon a cart’s return.
Signs posted in stores would tell customers it’s illegal to remove a cart from the premises. Each cart must be marked with ID tags including the store’s name, address, phone number and the phone number of the contractor.
If a business fails to comply with the ordinance, they may be fined $250 to $500.
If money is left over after paying the contractor, it would be used for community-based programs or to provide fold-up shopping carts for people who need them, such as lower-income users of public transit.
Melinda Merrill, director of Fred Meyer public affairs, said the cost proposed by Mello was too high. She said in Oregon, the grocery industry set up a cart retrieval system costing businesses about $5 per cart.
Jan Gee, president and CEO of the Washington Food Industry, said the system in nearby Lakewood costs $2 per cart.
Mello said he made the issue a priority after members of the Central Neighborhood Council wrote a letter to Tacoma council members last spring expressing concerns about abandoned carts.
“I think stores need to take ownership in the community,” said Justin Leighton, secretary of the neighborhood council. “The stores will soon find out it’s financially beneficial for them to put up a locking system.”
Under Mello’s proposal, non-profit organizations such as Goodwill and businesses with 35 carts or fewer would be exempt from fines. Mello said about half of Tacoma’s businesses wouldn’t have to worry because they have the minimum number of carts.
Also exempt would be businesses that install electronic containment systems. These use a digitally encoded signal to trigger a wheel to lock up if a cart leaves store property.
Merrill said many Fred Meyer stores have such systems, but they haven’t solved theft issues.
“They don’t work,” she said. “People hammer off the wheels with a tool. Anyone determined to take a cart will take it even if a wheel is locked.”
Mike Hargreaves, owner of Stadium Thriftway, voluntarily installed a containment system about 21/2 years ago and said it’s been successful. He said he doesn’t have to buy as many new carts each year.
“If we can come up with the solution without it being a monetary burden to the stores, that would be the goal of our industry,” he said.
Although some grocery store officials agree carts need to be better contained, they disagree with Mello’s approach.
“The tough part of this is that the store, in a way, is a victim (of cart theft),” Hargreaves said. “Yet, what we’re looking at is penalizing the victim.”
Merrill agreed. “These carts have been stolen from us. That’s akin to having your home robbed and then being fined when the thieves dump your belongings somewhere.”
Mello acknowledged some stores try to be responsible, but said “it’s not cutting it. We need to incentivize them to try harder. Hopefully our ordinance provides better incentives to help encourage better behavior.”
Other attempts to corral shopping carts – such as creating places for customers to place them away from store property – have generally not met with success.
A bus stop near Fred Meyer on South 19th Street has an area where carts may be returned. Pierce Transit installed it in 1995, for people who push their groceries to the bus stop.
“For the most part, people haven’t used it,” said Jessyn Farrell, a spokeswoman for Pierce Transit. “It just hasn’t seemed to be the right approach.”
Law enforcement action is also spotty.
When police officers see a person with a shopping cart away from store property, they theoretically could stop and investigate for possible theft.
Chief of Police Donald Ramsdell told the City Council committee Thursday that officers make judgment calls, similar to when they see people jaywalk.
“It’s occasionally enforced,” Ramsdell said.
As for abandoned carts, Tacoma Police spokesman Mark Fulghum said his department doesn’t get a lot of reports about them and doesn’t view them as a significant public safety concern.
“It’s not a major issue for us,” Fulghum said.
In the letter from the Central Neighborhood Council to the City Council, however, the group said the number of carts found dumped around Tacoma indicate the city’s efforts have been “insufficient in dealing with this growing problem.”
Not all neighborhood leaders agree.
Lynnette Scheidt, president of Eastside Neighborhood Council and of Dometop Neighborhood Alliance, said her part of Tacoma is “amazingly clean” of wayward carts and other eyesores.
“I get frustrated sometimes,” Scheidt said. “The city has enough to do; it’s up to us citizens. People need to be more proactive and not throw everything into the city’s lap.”
Stephanie Kim: 253-597-8692