Saturday, May 17, 2008

Food fiasco costs inmates, taxpayers

Published Wednesday, May 14, 2008 6:33 PM


As the Florida Department of Corrections finally begins to levy some serious fines against prison food contractor Aramark Corp., sick inmates aren't the only ones who need some answers. Taxpayers may well be getting the short end of this deal, and Gov. Charlie Crist needs to keep asking questions.

The Aramark contract, signed seven years ago by Gov. Jeb Bush, has been subject to so little scrutiny the department's own inspector general wrote last year that "most documents related to food service performance prior to 2004 (have) been purged from department files." The inspector general's report, released eight days after Crist was inaugurated, found that Aramark had pocketed a $10.5-million windfall by charging for meals it never served and by substituting cheaper ingredients without approval.

"Even if Aramark's original cost proposal was based on a break-even operating margin," the report stated, "FY 2005-06 compensation of $71-million was an excessive amount to pay for the reduced quality and percentage quantity of meals that the department received."

To its credit, the department now is beginning to do something about it. Aramark has been fined $241,499 this year, more than the previous six years combined. Department officials are also raising questions about a chili meal served April 25 at Santa Rosa Correctional Institution in Milton. Some 277 inmates reported diarrhea and nausea following the meal.

The concern here goes well beyond upset stomachs. Food plays a significant role in prison security. Experienced prison guards know that inmates who are not adequately fed can and do strike out at their captors. Fights can break out from the slightest change in cafeteria procedures.

Given the connection between Aramark and Republican political causes, questions about the contract were raised from the very start. Bush's first privatization czar quit the job when she found out that the governor was interested less in saving tax money than he was in transferring government services to private companies.

The department's "Cost-Value Analysis" last year, in fact, raises serious questions about whether Aramark ever saved taxpayers money. The original bid was never compared to the department's direct costs, and the company then took shortcuts. As more and more inmates stopped eating Aramark meals, the company charged as though it was still serving them. Then it began serving ground turkey instead of ground beef, at a savings of 57 cents a pound. In other words, it was cutting corners and still charging taxpayers top dollar.

The state auditor general's office is now conducting its own investigation, and Crist should be eager to hear the results. The department projected in 2006 that it could rehire staff and serve 5 percent more meals, at greater quality, for $7-million less than Aramark charged. If that estimate is even close to being accurate, he will want to end this privatization fiasco.

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