Jeff Jardine: Years after Modesto ordinance, abandoned shopping carts still a problem

08/20/2014 6:45 PM

08/20/2014 6:47 PM

In 2008, the Modesto City Council updated its ordinance aimed at curtailing the number of shopping carts stolen from stores around the city and dumped in neighborhoods, parks, business districts, along streets, and into Dry Creek and the much-abused Tuolumne River.

The abandoned carts represent traffic and safety hazards, and blight.

Though written in legalese, anti-cart theft and abandonment ordinances pretty much everywhere pack the same lack of wallop:

Uh, you’re not supposed to do that.

Because equally prevalent is the inability to enforce such ordinances. When you consider the budget cuts to city staff and law enforcement in just about every city in the state, chasing shopping cart thieves ranks very low on the priority list, as in very close to the bottom. Otherwise, the police would have to say, “We’ll get around to investigating that homicide right after we crack down on those shopping cart thieves.”

According to the city’s municipal code, registered retrieval services are supposed to get a list of abandoned carts on a daily basis, reporting the locations. These services are paid by the stores to fetch the abandoned carts and return them to their owners. But that isn’t happening, former Modesto Councilman Denny Jackman said. He began emailing the mayor and council members, asking them to do something to put some oomph into the ordinance.

“One was just being pushed past my home. I am nearly two miles from that market, Cost Less,” Jackman wrote this week. “In front of Jack in the Box at McHenry/Briggsmore are three carts. They are all along Elm Avenue today and have been for weeks. ... My guess is that the policy does not deter or correct. May we get you or someone within the City to initiate a policy that eliminates the littering of shopping carts throughout our city.”

“I’ve asked the city attorney to explore what we can do,” Councilman Tony Madrigal said. “We need to find a solution, and if there is something legislatively that we can do, I’m all for it.”

Even when the ordinance is enforced in Modesto, the impact is minimal. The majority of cart thieves, store managers will tell you, are homeless. Some suffer from mental illness and/or drug addiction. Moral reasoning doesn’t come into play. That stores buy and maintain the carts as a service to their paying customers means nothing to the mentally ill. When they see something they can use or hoard – or use to hoard – they simply take it. A few years ago, a mentally ill man created a one-man landfill at the base of the Seventh Street Bridge over the Tuolumne. As a work detail of county jail inmates cleaned up his mess, the culprit arrived, pushing two more shopping carts full of scavenged stuff. Authorities warned him to stop, but it didn’t register.

Fining these folks doesn’t work because they have no money.

Some people want to blame store managers for not doing a better job of keeping track of their carts. Sorry, that one doesn’t play here. Theft is theft, and the thief is to blame, not the victim. We’re not talking about protecting a customer’s credit or debit card info. We’re talking about people who simply take whatever they want or think they need.

When Dollar General opened a store on Yosemite Boulevard nearly a year ago, about a dozen brand-new carts disappeared within the first few weeks, store manager Bob Reyna said.

Smart & Final on Ninth Street has lost 20 carts this summer and loses an average of 40 to 50 a year, manager Marco Lopez told me. Like many other store managers, he pays a cart retrieval service and secures with chains at night the ones that survived the day. Those disappear, too, he said.

“(The retrieval workers) recover three or four over a week’s time,” Lopez said. “And when I get them back, some of them have been chopped up or used for grills, and I can’t use them again.”

Replacing them isn’t cheap. He bought 25 last year and 25 more this year, spending roughly $6,000 total.

Phil Browning, manager of the Cost Less at Kansas Avenue and North Carpenter Road, said he recently ordered 35 new carts to replace stolen ones. He said the homeless problem has gotten to the point where he and other store managers in the center will meet with police officials next week to look for ways to curb it.

“I call the cops about every day,” Browning said. “They (the homeless) intimidate the women customers.”

He, too, pays a retrieval service. But the success rate isn’t great, nor is the condition of some of the carts that do come back.

“There’s nothing we can do,” he said. “It affects all of us in the (shopping) center.”

Some stores offer carts equipped with wheels that lock up when someone tries to push them outside the store’s parking lot. A magnetic device triggers the lock. But those carts are expensive, and some stores buy them only when other carts are stolen or wear out and need to be replaced.

“Some have the locking mechanism,” Smart & Final’s Lopez said. “And that still doesn’t stop (thieves).”

Neither will an ordinance. Indeed, if homelessness, drug abuse and mental illness could be legislated away, they would have been eliminated gone long ago.

The streets would be shopping cart free.

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