Shopping carts often found in Merced area waterways

tmiller@mercedsunstar.comAugust 16, 2013 

— A stroll or bike ride along Bear or Black Rascal creeks can provide a number of regular sights — foliage, wildlife, shopping carts.

Longtime resident Larry Harris, 66, said he's been pulling the carts out of the waterway for some time, and he'd like retail stores and supermarkets to do their part.

"As long as retail stores come and pick them up, there's not a problem," he said.

During a meeting in July, Harris showed Merced City Council an array of shopping carts, as well as other debris, thrown into Merced-area creeks.

After that meeting, the city set one up between stores and city staff on Aug. 1. Harris said the city has shown some effort, but carts are still in the creek.

"They're doing a little bit better job, but it's always a problem," Harris said.

Several years ago, the Merced City Council passed an ordinance making retail stores and supermarkets responsible for retrieving stray carts.

Code enforcement officers were given the power to write citations, considered misdemeanors, to the businesses. Those misdemeanors were rarely prosecuted, according to city staff.

A newer ordinance passed two years ago allows the city's code enforcement staff to issue administrative citations resulting in fines to the businesses for failure to retrieve carts.

Mike Stephenson, who manages the code enforcement department for the city, said Merced's two enforcement officers have not written any administrative citations.

"There's steps we can use to remedy first, before we go to the citation process," Stephenson said.

If stray carts are a consistent problem, the city can compel stores to hire extra security or install devices on cart wheels that lock when they are taken off the property, Stephenson said.

"It's an administrative decision made by the director and myself, that we just say, 'Hey, you have to do it. You're not complying,' " he said. "Our code allows us to do that."

Stephenson said each store must have a written plan for that retrieval, whether they use their own staff or a third-party service.

Some businesses have not been responsive to letters from the city and have missed meetings, Stephenson said, and he wants retail store owners to understand the parameters before code enforcement gives out citations.

"At this point, we want to make sure that everybody understands our position, and knows what might happen if they don't comply," he said.

Carts are not the only debris that ends up in the creeks. Couches, TVs, stereos and food wrappers can be found along the banks and in the water.

City Manager John Bramble said the Merced Irrigation District is responsible for maintaining the waterways and banks. He said meetings with MID have been beneficial.

"We're in conversations with them as to how we might all work together," Bramble said.

MID spokesman Mike Jensen said debris clogging the waterway is not a new problem. He said MID is charged with ensuring water can flow through the canals.

"Nobody is more frustrated by garbage and shopping carts being dumped in our community's canals, than (MID)," Jensen said, adding that staff can't pick out every piece of garbage. "We have 800 miles of canals and waterways. It would be impossible for us to act like a policing agency."

MID and Merced city staff plan another meeting on the issue later this month.

To report a stray shopping cart, a list of contact numbers for retail stores is available at www.cityofmerced.org.

If the cart's origin is not identifiable, people can call code enforcement at (209) 385-6861.

Reporter Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or tmiller@mercedsunstar.com.

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