The mere mention of abandoned shopping carts can ruin a resident's day and send even the most mild-mannered city official into a blistering tirade.
The issue has long been a point of contention in cities across Orange County as residents demand that officials act more quickly to corral the carts, which they say signal urban blight in the form of "metal graffiti."
Now a new state law that restricts how cities can rid streets of stray carts has officials up in arms. "I'm mad as hell about it," Anaheim City Councilman Lou Lopez fumed at a recent meeting.
Garden Grove Mayor Bruce Broadwater calls the new law"absolutely ridiculous," while Costa Mesa Councilman Joe Erickson blasts it as "unworkable and ill-conceived."
The law, set to take effect next month, forbids city workers from touching abandoned shopping carts for three days so that grocers have time to collect their property first, avoiding fees from municipalities for rounding up and returning them.
At least five cities have joined forces to seek a repeal or modification of the new law, assigning council members and city attorneys to collaborate on the effort. Together, they have sent dozens of letters to Gov. Pete Wilson and state legislators.
"The legitimate concerns of cities are being ignored in this case," said Anaheim Mayor Tom Daly, who has become a leader in the effort to change the law. More than 3,000 abandoned carts are picked up by workers each month in Anaheim.
The California Grocers Assn., which sponsored the bill and pushed for its passage last summer, say the shopping cart issue has been overblown.
The trade group argues that shopping carts are an unfortunate but necessary form of transport for the poor and elderly. The group says that in some cases, they are difficult to collect because the people using them to carry laundry, trash or recyclables simply don't want to give them back.
"I don't think it bothers people to see an elderly person pushing their groceries home in a shopping cart," said Bill Combs, who manages the California Shopping Cart Retrieval Corp. "But I do think it bothers them to see a homeless person living out of them."
Grocers Assn. spokeswoman Beth Beeman said she has heard residents accuse store owners of being unconcerned about errant carts. But thousands of stores, including 1,100 in Southern California, hire private firms to collect abandoned carts "because, quite frankly, we need the carts to operate."
"We don't want the carts littering the neighborhood," Beeman said, noting that more than 300 truckloads of carts are picked up each week by grocery store workers in Orange County. "It's insulting to be accused of such a thing."
The new law was needed to establish a universal approach to shopping cart retrieval, she said, adding that California's 470 cities have varying approaches. The inconsistency made it hard for grocers to come up with their own policies.
City officials, however, say the change will force them to modify or even scrap local cart retrieval ordinances they say are necessary to keep cart clutter off the streets.
Municipalities have taken several approaches. In Orange, police may immediately seize any free-floating shopping cart on public property and fine the grocer who owns it. Carts not claimed in 90 days are destroyed, with a bill going to the owner to cover the cost; or sold, with the profit going to the city. Orange workers recently picked up 6,000 abandoned carts in two months, officials said.
Costa Mesa, Garden Grove, Santa Ana and San Juan Capistrano also have ordinances requiring owners to keep track of their baskets or pay.
If efforts to modify the state law fail, city officials say, they are prepared to work around the new rules and be creative in enforcement to keep residents happy.
David De Berry, assistant city attorney in Orange, said the new law allows cities to fine cart owners $50 if they have more than three unclaimed stray carts in a six-month period. Storage fees may also be charged by the city, he said.
"If we're conscientious, we could get a little bonus out of this," he said.
But Anaheim City Atty. Jack L. White said the required three-day wait could mean an added expense for taxpayers. "If a cart is spotted and reported, a store has three days to fetch it," he said. "What happens if someone comes along before [it is retrieved] and moves it down the street or around the corner? We have to start all over again."
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A new state law effective Jan. 1 will restrict how cities can handle abandoned shopping carts. Here's how some Orange County cities have been dealing with the problem:
* Anaheim: Code enforcement officers notify store owners when a cart is spotted. If it is not claimed in 24 hours, it is impounded for 90 days, then destroyed.
* Costa Mesa: City workers may immediately pick up abandoned carts and return them to local markets for a fee.
* Garden Grove: Retailers must pay the city $11 for each shopping cart that municipal workers round up. By contrast, most private services charge about $13 to return as many as 15 carts. Idea is to encourage grocers to collect their carts quickly.
* Orange: City workers may immediately seize any cart on public property. Owners of carts found on private property have 48 hours to pick them up before they are impounded. After that, retailers must pay a fine to retrieve them.
Source: Individual cities; Researched by BONNIE HAYES / For The Times