VOL. 130 | NO. 63 | Wednesday, April 1, 2015
Aramark Corrections Center Food Contract Approved
By Bill Dries
Aramark Correctional Services Inc. will take over food service at the Shelby County Corrections Center, four years after the private company did the same at the Shelby County Jail and Jail East.
Shelby County Commissioners approved the two-year, $3.6 million contract Monday, March 30.
Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell proposed the move to Aramark, saying it would bridge $1.6 million of a $1.9 million funding gap. The gap is caused by a new funding formula Tennessee uses to pay the county to house prisoners serving state prison sentences at the corrections center.
He pledged and the commission put in writing that none of the 31 food service employees at the corrections center will lose their jobs in the transition. They will be offered jobs in other divisions of county government if they choose not to work for Aramark. And if they work for Aramark, the company will offer wages comparable to or greater than what they presently earn.
The commission’s debate was just as volatile as it was four years ago when the administration’s move to include the corrections center with the two jails in that Aramark contract was delayed and then abandoned.
Commissioner Eddie Jones accused the administration of blaming the funding gap on the state when there isn’t one based on what he said the administration told him.
“Commissioner, you need to get your facts straight. You are misrepresenting our discussion so bad I can’t believe it,” Luttrell said.
“I’m not misrepresenting anything you said,” Jones replied.
“I don’t play this shell game,” commissioner Terry Roland added, questioning the need to privatize or outsource food services at the corrections center.
Luttrell said Roland’s case was “speculative and anecdotal.”
“You are waving a blood shirt.”
“Don’t be coming up here and throwing smack at me,” Roland countered.
The state of Tennessee had been paying what came out to be a certified rate of $70.04 per prisoner per day to Shelby County based on allowable costs the county could submit to the state for review.
The corrections center contracts across the state prevent overcrowding in state prisons and how much the state pays was a sensitive subject between county governments and the state throughout the 1980s.
During the 1987-1994 administration of Gov. Ned McWherter, the counties and the state settled on a per diem rate or formula that kept the peace with some adjustments.
With the fiscal year that began July 1, 2014, the state capped the per diem rate to Shelby County at $67.44 per prisoner per day.
County chief administrative officer Harvey Kennedy said Shelby County fared better in the negotiations of the five-year contract than other counties where the average was a cap of $35. Nevertheless, he said the county’s fixed costs are going up as the prison population goes down.
The county’s general fund pays for the costs of housing inmates who are serving less than a year on misdemeanor convictions The costs of those serving out felony sentences at the corrections center are paid through an enterprise fund that includes the per diem.
Kennedy said in negotiations with the state, the county considered what would happen if it stopped housing state prisoners. That would have left the county with 200 prisoners at the most serving misdemeanor sentences and would have meant slashing hundreds of county jobs.
“Every one of the 31 will be able to remain with the county,” Luttrell said, referring to the food service workers. “If this contract is not accepted it stands to reason that $1.9 million is going to cost some county jobs.”
But some commissioners complained that Aramark has not used locally owned businesses for its food supplies and probably won’t change that practice despite the contract’s language that they will make a “good faith effort” in the corrections center food service takeover.
Others questioned how the cooks and kitchen workers would find other county jobs.
“They don’t have skills in technology. Where are they going to go?” asked commissioner Walter Bailey. “Let’s look at cutting in other places. Stick by these people.”
The votes on both sides of the issue crossed party lines.
“I’m not going to take nobody’s job to be a conservative,” Roland said.
But other commissioners, Republicans and Democrats, argued that the change in food services is necessary if tough on employees.
Commissioner Mark Billingsley said the guarantee of jobs elsewhere in county government or at at least the same pay with Aramark is “the most thoughtful way to guarantee our employees are taken care of.”
“Almost nobody has food service anymore,” commissioner Heidi Shafer added. “This is the most humane way to do this.”
The final vote was 7-5 with commissioners Bailey, Jones, Roland, Reginald Milton and Melvin Burgess voting no. Commission chairman Justin Ford abstained.