Meals at jail

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Supervisors OK new company for jail meals

By Billy Davis
Panola County supervisors have awarded ABL Management, Inc. a one-year contract for food services at the Panola County jail.

The Louisiana-based company won the contract from local business Court Street Catering, which had submitted a bid of $1.20 per meal and 55 cents for sandwiches.

ABL squeaked past that bid with a price of $1.18 per meal and 50 cents for sandwiches, making it apparent low bidder. 

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A third bidder, Barragan Catering, had submitted bids of $1.23 per meal and 65 cents per sandwich.

But it wasn’t that simple.

Supervisors were faced with choosing between a local business or a national company over a two-cents difference between the top two bids. 

Court Street won a one-year bid last summer after longtime food-service contractor Reed Buntin ceased his services.

Court Street has billed Panola County government $154,180 for meals from July 2010 to July 2011, according to invoices obtained by The Panolian.

The three bids were opened last week in Sardis but supervisors tabled the issue until Monday.

The bid decision fell under old business but supervisors voted unanimously to table the matter and discuss it at the end of their meeting.

Representatives from the three bidders were present when the matter came up but had departed after the issue was tabled.

When the bid decision came back up, board president Gary Thompson said a requirement in the bid process gives county government the right to accept a bid that’s in the “best interest of Panola County,” even if it means passing over a lower bid.

Thompson also announced he had consulted with the Mississippi attorney general’s office, where he was told supervisors must accept the lowest bid unless there is a “specific reason” that the higher bid “stands out” from the lower bid.

Sheriff Otis Griffin and some supervisors believed they had found that “specific reason,” when it was pointed out that inmate trusties receive special meals since they work away from the jail. 

“The trusties always eat something different because they go out and work,” Griffin said. “They eat something different every day.”

Court Street owner Sheila Pounders is currently providing those meals, Griffin said.

Supervisor James Birge, speaking quietly to his colleagues, recommended that the board accept the Court Street bid. However, County Administrator Kelley Magee pointed out that the bid request did not specify “different” meals for trusties.

Meeting attendee Gary Ramsey inserted himself into the discussion, asking supervisors why they would choose Court Street when the bid requirements did not specify special meals for trusties.

A second attendee, Bob Bryant, seconded that observation and suggested that supervisors seek advice from board attorney Bill McKenzie.

“You asked for bids and they responded to your request,” McKenzie, prompted to speak, told the board. “And now we hear of a separate meal.”

“Why not keep them?” asked a third meeting attendee, Letha Wiley. “They’ve done good work during the year… They’re local… it’s a local business…”

Thompson then explained to Wiley, while she talked over him, that the Board of Supervisors is required to follow state bidding laws.

McKenzie then continued his address, noting that a separate menu had not been mentioned until Griffin mentioned the special meals.

“The purpose of bid laws is to level the playing field and give all a chance,” the attorney told supervisors. “To be fair to the bidders, you need to say what you want.”

Thompson then suggested that supervisors reject all three bids then publish a new bid request that includes separate meals for trusties. Supervisors voted 5-0 to reject the bids.

McKenzie and supervisors then discussed how to word a new bid request to describe meals for trusties.

Any bid description should have more details than simply asking for a “better meal,” McKenzie said.

“Maybe it should read more calories,” Magee suggested.

Griffin then returned to the boardroom after making a phone call. “The meals are not done every day. It depends,” he said.

“I really want to write some specs like that — ‘it depends,’” answered McKenzie.

 “This is making the bidding process really, really complicated,” said Thompson.

“We’re really making the issue complicated,” agreed Supervisor Bubba Waldrup.

The board then voted unanimously to rescind its motion to reject all bids. Then supervisors voted 4-1 to accept the ABL bid, with Waldrup the lone “nay” vote.

The contract begins in September.