Seeking a handle on blight from shopping carts

Times Staff Writer

Ernest Jimenez Jr. pulls alongside an abandoned shopping cart nestled against a palm tree a few feet from a "No Dumping" sign in a quiet neighborhood.

"I got one here; it's from Ralphs," he says, hopping out of his pickup truck to lift the metal basket onto the bed, where it joins a red plastic trolley from Office Depot. "They use the ones with green handles."

Jimenez knows his shopping carts. And he should. As a code enforcement officer for the city of Glendale, the six-year veteran is charged in part with keeping this densely populated city free of unsightly trolleys. He's a trailblazer of sorts, with cities around the state increasingly taking note of his efforts as they attempt to curb "an epidemic" of loose carts cluttering streets.

Moments later, Jimenez spies two more offenders on a jacaranda-lined boulevard across from a schoolyard where children dance in the morning sun.

"This cart someone has taken in and modified," he says, pointing to one with a high handle and low basket, "you'd be surprised at how much carts can get cut."

Most of Jimenez's prey today are imports, like the second cart at this stop, which hails from a Trader Joe's in Burbank. Thieves are forced to look outside Glendale for shopping carts because of a law that requires stores here to keep them on their property.

Cities where these carts come from, as well as others in California, are looking to Glendale for help with the ubiquitous problem. In the last year alone, a cart retrieval service used by 2,800 Southern California grocers and retailers picked up 8 million wayward trolleys. But many more stores don't search for lost carts, leaving municipalities and residents to cope with the blight and health and safety hazards they foster.

In Palmdale, three claims for damages were filed against the city this year by people who veered off the road to avoid slamming into a cart. In downtown Los Angeles, where workers picked up 875 carts on skid row in the first four months of this year, business owners worry about health issues presented by baskets filled with soiled clothes, layers of trash and even bottles of urine.

In Mira Mesa, fed up residents formed "San Diegans Against Abandoned Shopping Carts" and are demanding that officials take action.

"Some stores are trying their best to get these carts back, but people are taking them as fast as they can get them back," said Terry Forshey, a Mira Mesa resident who heads up the group, adding that he recently counted 71 carts scattered around his 1 1/2 -square-mile neighborhood.

Therein lies the dilemma for officials trying to get a handle on a growing menu of trolleys loose in their cities: how to ensure that residents understand that it's illegal to remove them from store grounds, while also persuading managers that it's good business to keep them on their property.

Several California cities recently enacted, or started studying, measures that penalize retailers for not keeping a closer eye on their carts. Los Angeles City Councilman Tony Cardenas plans to propose such a law this week.

Los Angeles officials have tried in vain for years to control abandoned carts. The problem is widespread in districts with lots of multifamily housing and in areas with many lower-income and elderly residents who don't own cars and "borrow" carts to carry things.

But it doesn't stop there.

In Sunland-Tujunga, a red plastic Target cart and a Ralphs cart bumped together recently along the banks of the boulder-strewn Tujunga Wash, marring the otherwise picturesque mountain backdrop.

Store managers said they pay a cart retrieval service to pick up the trolleys, but acknowledged they're unsure how many carts they have in their inventories or how many go missing.

"It's very difficult to get away from that habit -- people are used to it," said Javier Felix, store manager of a Ralphs in Sunland.

After 5,300 carts were collected in six months in his central San Fernando Valley district last year, Cardenas called store owners together for a meeting, where they conceded that they had "picked up more than 10 times" that number during the same trial period.

"Constituents, and my staff, have seen close calls that turn our stomach, like when we see little kids playing with these on sidewalks," Cardenas said. "You might see a shopping cart next to a couch, or next to a refrigerator, and before you know it, it's a magnet for illegal dumping."

Cardenas devised a measure, with help from store managers, that would require businesses that lose a certain number of carts during a specified period to install electronic systems to prevent people from taking trolleys.

But a trade group representing grocery stores said cart containment systems are expensive and suggested that Los Angeles and other cities enforce an existing state law that prohibits the taking of carts.

"There are three victims involved in cart theft," said Dave Heylen, a spokesman for the California Grocers Assn. "It impacts the retailer, it impacts those who live in the local communities, and then it puts a burden on the city."

City officials have balked at penalizing residents for taking carts, saying store owners refuse to prosecute customers in court.

"I don't think any police officer would ever, ever write a ticket for somebody taking a cart," said Los Angeles City Councilman Greig Smith.

Cardenas' proposal would place most of the responsibility for controlling carts on stores, mirroring a law adopted by the Glendale City Council two years ago.

Glendale's policy requires city code enforcement officers to count carts at local grocery and retail outlets. If managers are missing more than five carts on any given day, they are required to devise a way to keep them on their property. Most retailers have installed electronic systems that cause a cart's wheels to lock if someone tries to roll them out of parking lots.

Officials said they enacted the measure to address hurdles created by a 1997 state law that requires municipalities to give retailers 72 hours to pick up abandoned carts.

"It tripled our problem, because rather than have one day of carts on the street, we had three days of carts on the street," said Sam Engel, Glendale's neighborhood services administrator. "We decided the only way that's going to work in Glendale is to actually stop the carts from getting out on the street; there was no way we could collect them fast enough."

City representatives repeatedly visited store managers and worked to persuade customers to use personal carts to transport items off site. Today, most of Glendale's homeless carry their belongings in backpacks, and some have Jimenez's cellphone number, which they reach for immediately when they find that a cart filled with their things is missing.

Although code enforcement officers met some initial resistance to the shopping cart law, store owners today say the measure has helped cut their operating budgets, because they do not have to replace lost carts at an average of $135 apiece.

A Target store at the Glendale Galleria installed a containment system to comply with the city's ordinance.

"We prefer to keep the carts and keep our prices low for our guests," said Steve Linders, a Target spokesman.

With a steep drop in abandoned trolleys, enforcement officer Jimenez's cart-identifying skills are growing rusty. After passing a cart on a busy street near the city's center, he pegged it as belonging to "a Target, or a Staples."

But, on closer inspection, he discovered he was wrong:

"Nope, it's Office Depot."


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