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City may curb shopping cart theft

(ran SS edition of METRO & STATE)

Some neighborhoods grow palm trees.

Others, like southeast Seminole Heights, seem to sprout shopping carts. Rusty and abandoned, they spell negligence and poverty to some.

It's not what City Council member Rose Ferlita wants for Tampa. She has proposed an ordinance that would hold grocery stores accountable for their wayward carts. The ordinance is set for a final vote today, and Ferlita expects it to pass.

For years, the alley behind her drug store on Nebraska Avenue in Seminole Heights has been a dumping ground for carts.

"It really just dirties up the neighborhood, and this neighborhood is trying to make some strides," said Ferlita, a citywide representative serving her first term.

But homeless advocates fear the ordinance will become a tool for law enforcement officers to harass the homeless who rely on carts to tote their possessions.

"We do not support anything that criminalizes the homeless," said Jim Joyce, director of the Hillsborough County Homeless Recovery Program.

The ordinance is aimed specifically at businesses. It would require stores to put their names, numbers and addresses on each cart. Stores also would have to post signs that say taking a cart is a violation of state law.

"The intent is to put some responsibility on individual store owners," said Gina Grimes with the city attorney's office, who drew up the proposed ordinance.

But requiring all carts to have identification will facilitate the prosecution of people pushing them down sidewalks, said Pam Bondi, a spokeswoman for the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office.

"It's easier to prosecute for petty theft because you know who the owner (of the cart) is," she said.

Hillsborough County passed a similar ordinance that went into effect last year. Since then, there have been noticeably fewer carts on the streets, particularly in the Town 'N Country area, where they were a nuisance, said Don Shea, director of the Community Improvement Department.

Homeless people living in wooded areas and beneath overpasses in Town 'N Country were blamed for taking many of the carts in that area.

But the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office says the ordinance hasn't sparked additional arrests.

Tampa police Sgt. Russell Bevan, who covers Tampa's east side, said he doesn't think a similar city ordinance will mean more arrests in the city.

"I don't think it's going to have much effect, but it doesn't hurt to have it on the books," he said.

Kristin Taylor, founder of Thorn Ministries, which feeds homeless people in Largo and Tampa, said homeless people should obey the law by not stealing carts. But she understands why they take them.

"If they have a blanket or anything at all and they're planning to carry it, the cart becomes their home," she said.

Seniors who can't carry their groceries home and those without cars also take carts, Ferlita said. She said the ordinance isn't aimed at the homeless.

Grocery stores, meanwhile, want desperately to protect their carts. They cost between $75 and $150 each and are cumbersome to retrieve.

Winn Dixie has installed some electronic fences that lock the carts' wheels when they reach the invisible barrier. But some customers outwit the system by dragging the carts past the fence until the wheels kick back in.

"It's a very expensive process and doesn't necessarily prevent people from taking the carts," said Winn Dixie spokesman Mickey Clerc.

The Kash n' Karry store at 7491 Fourth St. N collects carts within a 20-block radius. This week, it took two hours to haul in 84 carts.

Others turn to middlemen who sell the carts back to stores for a dollar or two each.

The stores lobbied for the Florida law that makes it a crime to steal a shopping cart. They were less thrilled about the county ordinance, and now, the city's.

"Adding a label . . . will come with a cost," said Kash n' Karry spokeswoman Caren Epstein. "The reality is those costs end up getting passed on to customers."

Ferlita says the public will benefit from the ordinance.

"It's long overdue," she said.

_ Kathryn Wexler can be reached at (813) 226-3383.