San Jose officials consider crackdown on abandoned shopping carts
A Big Lots shopping cart sits abandoned on West Julian Street in Downtown San Jose. City officials are considering revising the Abandoned Shopping Cart Program to include harsher penalties for violators. Photo by Grace Hase.

Driving through San Jose on any given day, you might be greeted by abandoned shopping carts flipped over and scattered along underpasses, near railroad tracks or on sidewalks.

Now, San Jose councilmember Sergio Jimenez wants to eliminate littering carts by revamping the city’s Abandoned Shopping Cart program, a decades-old policy that hands out fines for carts run awry but excludes some retailers.

“Illegal dumping and blight continue to negatively affect the quality of life for San Jose residents today,” Jimenez wrote in a memo submitted to Wednesday’s Rules and Open Government Committee.

In 2018, the city collected 5,003 abandoned shopping carts and issued 260 citations at $250 a piece, according to Code Enforcement Supervisor Jason Gibilisco. The program requires businesses with 26 or more shopping carts to submit a prevention plan to keep them on their property. And while the program collects fees for the carts that have wandered off, it doesn’t cover the full costs of enforcement – leaving the city in the red.

At the committee meeting Wednesday, Jimenez asked city leaders to revisit the 18 year-old ordinance, which hasn’t been fully reviewed since its adoption. Jimenez suggested looking at escalating fines for violators and requiring signage on all carts to help find the rightful owner, among other things.

Jimenez also wants all businesses to be enrolled in the program.

Right now, the program doesn’t cover chain retailers or businesses with fewer than 26 carts – creating a potential loophole for stores. He also suggested a sliding scale for “mom and pop retailers” based on the number of carts throughout the city.

Vice Mayor Chappie Jones, however, pushed back on the idea. He wondered whether the city should place harsher penalties on businesses that are already losing money from disappearing carts.

Matthew Mahood, president and CEO of the silicon valley organization – which represents over 1,400 companies – also worried about the effects of the policy on business owners.

“One main reservation we have with the proposed modification of full cost recovery for all businesses in the program is that smaller businesses may not be able to bare the cost of full recovery services and may currently depend on the Department of Transportation’s street dispatch service,” Mahood wrote in a letter to the committee.

Public perception of stray carts

While many residents blame stolen carts on the city’s homeless residents, Jimenez acknowledged that’s not the only reason the carts are going missing: Shoppers walk off with them, as well.

But San Jose resident Mike Norris said the city’s abandoned shopping cart problem is a sign of other issues as well, including going to grocery stores that aren’t for people without cars.

“Car infrastructure itself puts more space between the shopper and their home,” he said. “If stores were built in walkable and bikeable environments and the shopper had more options to bring their food home, the (carts) would mostly stay put.”

Property manager John Zell, who manages 1,300 properties across San Jose, said he hopes more responsibility is put on businesses to track and maintain their carts. In 2016, he was fined when a non-tenant left Rite-Aid and Mi Pueblo carts in front of one of his properties. He unsuccessfully appealed the fine.

“They had no proof of who brought it there or who dumped the cart there or anything,” Zell said. “Just that the cart was on the property and we were essentially in violation of carts being abandoned on our property.”

With the agreement from the committee, Jimenez’s idea will advance to the full council to determine whether it’s a city priority.

“We look forward to working with community members and businesses to implement an updated policy that keeps shopping carts from littering our city and is equitable for our businesses,” Jimenez said.

Contact Grace Hase at grace@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @grace_hase on Twitter.

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