Mayor Johnny Smith said his goal is to have something for the members of the City Council to review and discuss by the time the council meets on May 14.
“I got the feeling that it’s going in the direction that they don’t want [the bins],” he said. “After hearing what I heard, I’m kind of thinking that’s the direction I need to head in myself.”
The unmanned collection bins scattered across the county typically support charities with the donation of clothes and shoes. However, residents often use the bins as a convenient place to dump a myriad of unwanted household items, creating an unsightly roadside attraction that city staff hope to more closely regulate, according to Building Inspector Mark Williams.
But it’s not always the charities themselves that have to deal with the problems arising from the bins: Clothing collection and thrift stores have become a significant for-profit industry, even in support of the charities with whom they work.
Williams said the problem in Jacksonville was brought to the city’s attention when a nearby business filed a complaint that its sign was being blocked by the Kingdom Boxes in the Food Outlet parking lot on Pelham Road South. City staff went to investigate the complaint on April 17: They found that not only were the bins in a prominent location, they were surrounded by boxes and furniture stacked on the ground.
“It kind of looked like a dumpster,” Williams said.
He said the bins at that time were violating four different city provisions, including failure to have a building or sign permit, accumulation of junk and not going before the city’s Planning Commission. When the building inspector approached the owner, he said everything was cleaned up immediately and the boxes were moved.
With the varied ordinances, enforcement was somewhat complicated, so Williams approached the council with a list of ways to possibly regulate the unattended bins more closely.
“It’s illegal, but we’re having to call it a sign in one case; we’re having to call it a structure for another,” City Attorney Grant Paris told the council members Monday.
But the consensus from the council seems to be to ban the structures completely.
“I think it seems as if it’s just difficult to keep it cleaned up around it,” said Smith. “If people have stuff to donate, they can call for pickup at their house.”
Councilman Truman Norred has worked for years with the Calhoun County Beautification Committee, and in that capacity has dealt in the past with unattended bins that became a problem.
“Almost any time you leave them out, they’ll eventually become an eyesore because they’ll get abused,” said the councilman. “It’s not the people putting them out; it’s the people using them that’s abusing it. The only way I know to solve it would be to say no boxes.”
This abuse of the boxes is as problematic for their owners as for the city. “People are bad to want to drop off junk furniture; about 80 percent of it ends up in the landfill,” said Tim Alvis, president of America’s Thrift Stores, a for-profit company that operates bins for non-profits. “You’re paying to pick it up and take it to the landfill, and these people are claiming it on their taxes.” His company’s landfill cost was down to $700,000 last year, but it has been as high as $1.5 million.
Mike Sanders, owner of the Food Outlet, said he thinks the city shouldn’t have the right to ban the boxes from his lot if he gives the charities permission to place them there. “I will work with the city in any way I can, but let’s be reasonable,” he said.
Sanders said he worked with the director of the Oxford-based Rivers of Living Water Outreach to put its boxes on the premises of his Food Outlet locations. He said the donations from the bins support a thrift store at South Leighton Avenue and East F Street in Anniston, which supports the organization’s ministry.
According to the organization’s website, the ministry works to provide meals and support to the homeless and help those with substance abuse issues recover from addiction. “They’re not there to be a garbage dump,” Sanders said. “They’re there to help people.”
Profit for charity
Donation bins and the thrift stores they support can be a big business. America’s Thrift Stores employs 1,100 people in five states --- and in Calhoun County operates 18 collection bins and two manned donation sites. One of those—for King’s Home, a nonprofit that runs homes for at-risk and abused children and battered women—is located at the Kangaroo service station on Pelham Road South in Jacksonville.
“Last year we had a really good year,” said Alvis. “The company made right at $3.5 million, but we paid out over $5 million to our ministries.”
With many residents still facing economic hardship, donations to the bins have been decreasing, said Alvis. As with any other commodity, the decrease in supply and increase in demand has sent the price for this type of clothing skyrocketing. Restricting their ability to place bins with property owners, Alvis said, would make doing business that much harder.
“Competition for the donation is driving the industry,” Alvis said. “A lot of non-profits have decided the thrift store business is the business to be in. They’re popping up everywhere.”
And people who call for companies to pick up their donations may not compensate for these companies’ inability to place bins: Alvis said his company conducted a marketing survey that revealed 60 percent of people don’t really care who they give to but rather give to what’s convenient. He said 80 percent of his company’s collections come from donation bins and manned trailer sites.
“We are a for-profit company,” said Alvis. “Because of that, we really focus on doing it correctly. The advantage is the ministries we support are ministries, and they focus on doing that correctly. Together, we have a very positive impact on community.”
When reached by phone, the director of Rivers of Living Water Outreach declined to comment on his ministry or donations, saying he preferred to leave any issues surrounding the bins to Sanders.
But the Food Outlet owner is clear on his position.
“The boxes are staying on that parking lot,” Sanders said. “If I have to go to court I will.”
Star Staff Writer Paige Rentz: 256-235-3562.