ST. PETERSBURG — An already tough year for the Salvation Army's largest fundraising campaign in the city got a little worse Tuesday evening when someone made off with one of its iconic red kettles.
Bart Bartie, 48, is accused of taking the kettle from behind the customer service counter at the Walmart Supercenter at 3501 34th St. S as the bell ringer took a break.
Bartie, of 3900 34th St. S, was arrested after he returned to the store and was recognized by store security personnel, who called police.
Bartie admitted stealing the kettle, police said. He said he reached behind the counter, grabbed the kettle and walked toward the exit, concealing it in a blue Walmart bag. It was estimated at the time the kettle contained $100 in cash and change.
Bartie was charged with retail theft.
"This is our biggest fundraising time of the year," said Tim Gilliam, the Salvation Army's area commander. "Every penny counts."
Kettle thefts are rare. In the past 12 years, three have been stolen locally, said Michael Rojas, the church's kettle coordinator for the area.
Clearwater Salvation Army Capt. Zach Bell said the theft is a sign of the times.
"People tend to get desperate," he said.
Rojas said the theft comes at a particularly bad time: Contributions to St. Petersburg kettles are down from last year.
In 2009, the Salvation Army had raised about $180,000 by this time. To date, about $150,000 has been collected.
Rojas cited a lagging economy and earlier-than-normal cold weather as possible factors for the drastic decrease.
There's increased demand, too.
Gilliam said he has seen a 15 to 20 percent increase in the number of people who have applied for food and toys. "It's vital, especially this year," he said of the donations.
Contributions in the Clearwater Salvation Army's kettles are down 20 percent this year and demand is up by the same percentage, representing about 540 more cases.
"We find ourselves in a predicament, but we're not losing faith in the community," Bell said.
The kettle campaign accounts for about 20 percent of all donations. The money pays for Christmas food baskets, toys and, if any is left, shelter expenses and daily operations, Gilliam said.
Salvation Army bell ringers will be out until Christmas Eve.