County looks to save money on meals, privatize jail services

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 15, 2015

As county government prepares its budget for the 2015-2016 fiscal year, Rowan officials are looking to save by trimming the amount of money spent on inmate meals.

Last week, county government began soliciting bids from private contractors to provide meals at the Rowan County jail. County Manager Aaron Church estimates the county would save close to $36,000 by switching to a private contractor for the jail’s food. The estimates are based on the company providing food at $1.20 per meal.

During the current fiscal year, numbers have varied by a few thousand dollars each month and sit at 64 percent of the budgeted amount. In January, for example, expenditures for food services were $46,286.74. Costs in February dropped to about $35,500.

“The contract for food services will decrease the cost of providing food service,” Church said. “Case in point, we currently buy food and prepare the food. By contracting, we hope that the cost of food will be significantly less due to the buying power of companies that provide this service. It’s fair to assume that they buy more bulk food than we do.”

The county’s request for proposals asks for prices from the beginning of the next fiscal year — July 1 — through July 1, 2018.

Initially, the thought of contracting food services was exactly that — an idea — said Sheriff Kevin Auten. When the kitchen supervisor resigned a few weeks ago, Auten said, it forced the his department “to really look at it in earnest” during budget preparation.

Church has already approved a $25,000 contract with Florida-based Trinity Services Group as a stopgap measure. He would need the Rowan County Board of Commissioners’ approval if a contract over $30,000 is needed to continue providing food through Trinity at the jail. The contract with Trinity values each inmate’s meal at 35 cents, less than a third of what Church estimates for a permanent contract.

Church has scheduled consideration of a larger contract than the stopgap measure for the Board of Commissioners’ first meeting in April. A contract approved in April would also be temporary. April 24 is the deadline for a permanent contract in the county’s request for proposals posted this week. The anticipated approval date by commissioners is May 25.

Both the temporary and permanent contracts would require the selected company to use the jail’s kitchens. The company would use the main jail’s facility, located on West Liberty Street. Auten said the private company likely wouldn’t use the satellite jail’s kitchen, which currently isn’t used by the Sheriff’s Office in meal preparation.

If the rates for Trinity’s stopgap plan could be replicated over the course of a permanent contract, county government would save significantly more than Church’s example. If the county jail provides 328,500 meals in fiscal year 2015-2016 — the amount projected by Church — meal expenses would be $114,975, which is over one third of the currently budgeted amount.

Auten said he hasn’t explicitly planned to shift money to another area of operations as a result of the projected savings.

Aside from saving money, Auten said, privatization of meals would ensure staff is always present.

“Keeping up to full staff has been difficult at best,” Auten said.

When asked about the quality of meals provided at the projected minuscule price points, Auten referred to the calorie counts listed on the county’s request for proposals. He said whatever company is selected would have to adhere to state minimums.

State laws require daily menus to include:

• Two servings of milk

• Two servings of fruit, with one being citrus

• Three servings of vegetables

• Two servings of protein or meat

• Four servings of whole grain or enriched bread products, which can include cereal

• 2,1000 to 2,500 calories

One result of going to privately provided meals could be layoffs in the jail’s kitchen. Auten said three full-time and five or six part-time employees currently work in the kitchen. He said the employees and selected company would have to work out whether they could continue working in the kitchen under private management.

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246.