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Largo targets look, location of donation bins

LARGO — The first complaints centered on the proliferation of charity bins and their sometimes messy appearance — enough to get Largo officials thinking about regulating them.

Now, officials are just as concerned about the owners of most of the bins in Largo: for-profit companies. They worry that residents are putting items in the bins thinking they're for the needy when, instead, for-profit companies are taking the items and selling them in thrift stores or elsewhere.

"They're generally not kept up. They're misleading to the public," Largo Mayor Woody Brown said. "I'll be happy when the donation boxes are for a good cause and that's it."

But Brown may not get his wish.

Recent case law apparently prohibits cities from having different rules for bins belonging to charities and those belonging to for-profit companies, said Carol Stricklin, Largo's community development director. That's why Largo is concentrating more on issues relating to appearance and such in developing rules to regulate the boxes.

Those rules might cover such things as size, how often they have to be emptied, upkeep of the boxes themselves and where they can be placed. The city also wants to make sure the owner of the bin can be easily identified in case code enforcement needs to contact the charity or company to discuss concerns about a particular bin.

Largo's concern about the bins began more than a year ago when a resident contacted Brown to complain that the manager of her apartment complex allowed them to be placed on the property. Since then, Brown said, he has heard many more complaints.

Stricklin said the city was also "receiving complaints about a proliferation of boxes and even some boxes that had been placed on city property and other property without permission."

When the City Commission directed staff members to come up with some rules, they counted the boxes and were surprised to find that 70 percent of those in Largo belonged to for-profit companies.

Brown said that, in one case, the bin indicates that clothing will be recycled. But that "recycling" isn't to the poor or needy. Instead, he said, the clothing is taken to Orlando, where it's sold in thrift stores for a profit. Any clothing that's too shabby to be sold or doesn't sell does go to charity.

"It's free inventory," Brown said. "They're generally not kept up.''

When consulted, members of the community development advisory board had similar complaints about the boxes and the amount of trash and debris that surrounds many of them. They, like the mayor, were also surprised to learn of the for-profit aspect, Brown said.

"Most of the people on CDAB said they had no idea," Brown said. "They never realized (the donations) were getting sold to thrift stores."

It's unclear when a set of proposed rules might come before the commission. When they do, they will be the first in Pinellas County, officials said. But it's not likely to be long given the level of concern among commissioners and residents.

The bins "do seem to be proliferating," Stricklin said. "It is a concern of the community that appears to be escalating a little bit."