Tuesday, March 31, 2015

County Commission OKs Compromise Out-Sourcing Deal on Food Services

Party lines flex both ways in vote approving Aramark as contractor for Corrections Center.

Posted By on Tue, Mar 31, 2015 at 9:31 AM

click to enlarge Milton makes the case against Aramark. - JB
  • JB
  • Milton makes the case against Aramark.

The Shelby County Commission, which is constantly redefining itself as the personalities on it redefine themselves, underwent another self-adjustment Monday, under the prod of an issue — out-sourcing forced by austerity — that keeps cropping up these days.

In this case, the question was whether the county should continue to run its own food service operation for the Division of Correctons compound in east Shelby County or lease that task to a private corporation, Aramark Correctonal Services, Inc., at something of a cost-savings. The decision was prompted by a decrease of $1.9 million in annual funding from the state of Tennessee.

At stake was the fate of 31 jobs, which ordinarily would be up to Aramark, a profit-based enterprise, to make decisions about, and, sans any effort by the county administration or the Commission to mitigate the fate of the employees, might have been arbitrarily trimmed the same way that similar positions at the jail and at Shelby County Schools had been when Aramark took over food services there.

That previous experience prompted anguished — and angry — testimony before the Commission from affected workers and spokespersons for them, several of whom made clear they distrusted conditions attached to the proposed deal by the administration that, in theory, would guarantee any terminated county food-service workers continued employment and benefits at existing levels, in jobs to be provided elsewhere in county ranks.

“We don’t want to hurt employees. We can realize savings without impacting any employees adversely,” said County CAO Harvey Kennedy, who was accompanied (and backed up) by County Mayor Mark Luttrell throughout the discussion.

Monday’s debate revolved around that latter concession, which in the end would deter two of the Commission’s Democrats — Van Turner and Willie Brooks — from joining a party-line revolt against the deal and stave off a contemplated objection also from at least one Republican, former Shelby County Schools member David Reaves, who had been dubious about the quality of the Aramark operation at SCS.

At various points in the discussion Republicans Reaves, Mark Billingsley, Steve Basar, and Heidi Shafer

The case against the Aramark contract was made primarily by Democratic Commissioners Walter Bailey, Eddie Jones, and Reginald Milton, and by Republican Terry Roland, all of whom expressed variations on the themes that the rights of workers should come first while expressing doubt that employees discontinued by Aramark could find suitable re-employment by the county.

Democrat Milton had originally been a co-sponsor of the contract arrangement with Aramark but withdrew his sponsorship, both because he had come to agree with the objections made by other Democratic opponents and, it was said, because he had been seriously put off by lobbying for the deal by some of the same Sheriff’s Department employees who had decisively intervened last weekend for eventual winner Randa Spears against Milton’s candidacy for the chairmanship of the local Democratic Party.

That last extra-curricular matter also nettled even one or two Republican Commissioners, who in solidarity with Milton reportedly considered the idea of deferring the Aramark contract, which will free up funding prospects for additional money which, with budget season approaching, the Sheriff’s Department is said to be seeking.

Much of the fight against the Aramark contract was also made by Roland, who, as other opponents had, disparaged “good faith” pledges on behalf of the employees and also questioned whether local businesses that have been serving the Corrections Center would be dropped by Aramark in favor of corporate vendors elsewhere.

Roland, a Millington Republican with quite conservative credentials on most issues, has always made a point of defending county employees’ interests. And, as one known to be intending a race for County Mayor in 2018, he has consistently been extending his rhetoric into more centrist areas as well. One remark of his, expressed in the vernacular he often favors, summed up his point of view: “I’m not going to take nobody’s job as the price of being conservative.”

Democratic Commissioner Jones at one point passed out some elaborate charts designed to disprove the administration’s contention that the Aramark contract was necessitated by financial exigencies. He maintained in effect that the administration had been sandbagging the Commission and that the county had been guaranteed more than enough money from the state to continue its own current food services operation.
Branding Jones’ assertions as “ludicrous,” Kennedy pointed out an apparent miscalculation by Jones, who had interpreted a maximum annual allotment figure based on a multiple of inmate numbers at the Correction Center to be a guaranteed annual figure, good for any year and any number of inmates.

In the end, the Commission would vote 7-5 in favor of the Aramark contract, with the add-on of an amendment by Turner, which essentially converted the “good faith” assurances of further employment for current food-services employees into precise contractual language. Voting for the contract were Republicans Reaves, Steve Basar, Mark Billingsley, George Chism, and Heidi Shafer. The five dissenters were Democrats Bailey, Milton, Jones, and Melvin Burgess, and Republican Roland. Abstaining was chairman Justin Ford, a Democrat.

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