Cumberland County sheriff wins 'food fight' with manager

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PORTLAND — Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce successfully fought back a proposal by County Manager Peter Crichton to consider hiring a private company to take over the kitchen at the Cumberland County Jail.

In an appearance before the county’s five-member Board of Commissioners last month, Joyce went so far as to say he would refuse to allow any food-service company to even come into the jail unless its employees were first subjected to lie-detector tests into their backgrounds.

“And I will not pay for it,” Joyce declared, setting up a possible showdown if Crichton’s proposal were ever to move forward.

Joyce said if private food-service workers were ever to enter the jail on his watch, their backgrounds would be subject to criminal background checks so as to ensure and protect jail security.

Crichton proposed soliciting bids from private food-service vendors to determine the extent to which the county might save what he said could be hundreds of thousands of dollars by outsourcing the meals provided to inmates.

“It’s something we should look at,” Crichton told commissioners.

He argued that some Maine counties – he cited Kennebec County Jail in particular – have saved up to $200,000 by replacing county-provided inmate meals with private companies to operate jail kitchens. He said Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset, which serves Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties, has realized $100,000 annual savings by switching to a private food vendor.

“Increasingly, county jails are deciding to do this,” Crichton said, citing potential savings that become key as jails face possible funding cutbacks at the state level.

The manager added that, if bids showed there would be no significant cost savings, the county could reject all bids and continue to have jail employees  preparing and serving inmates’ meals.

“The final decision would be yours as to whether any change would be made,” he told commissioners during a recent meeting.

“This is a tough issue because you are affecting people, and I understand that,” Crichton said, citing what would be potential layoffs of some jail employees if they are replaced with a private food-service company. But he said the idea had to be explored to protect taxpayers from rising costs.

“I’m not suggesting there should be a change made,” he added. “But as manager, I feel that this is the kind of thing that we should be looking at as a county government.”

Crichton said such exploration is in keeping with the county’s attempt to reduce the cost of government, including its regionalization of emergency-dispatch services to help municipalities save money otherwise spent hiring their own dispatchers.

Joyce told commissioners that the potential savings cited by Crichton couldn’t be quantified or even confirmed. He said five of the county’s six-member kitchen staff, which prepares 1,500 meals daily, is comprised of certified corrections officers. Besides running the kitchen they have expertise in jail security and also provide vocational training for inmates interested in the culinary arts.

“They are always looking at the bottom line,” he added, “conscious of the need to keep costs at a minimum while at the same time ensuring that quality meals are provided.”

The sheriff said the biggest problem in jails nationally in terms of maintaining inmate control is a lack of quality, nutritious meals. Inmates unhappy with their food are more prone to engage in conflict, he maintained.

“When you’re talking about a jail, one of the things that causes inmate grievances or uprisings is lack of quality food,” Joyce said. “Some people think inmates should get only bread and water. The reality is that’s what causes problems.”

After hearing the sheriff’s impassioned defense for keeping the kitchen staff in the hands of the county, commissioners were swayed by what they concluded was the logic of his argument.

“I have concerns about the security issues raised by Sheriff Joyce,” board Chairman Neil Jamieson of Scarborough said.

Commissioner James Cloutier of Portland also cited a “gaping security issue” if outside help is hired.

“I have zero interest in this,” Cloutier said. “The range of savings of $200,000 is 1 percent of the budget. It’s not a significant financial item in my opinion. We shouldn’t outsource loyal employees.”

Commissioner Susan Witonis of Casco cited the “demoralizing” potential effect of laying off veteran county employees. “To let these people go for $100,000 or $200,000, I don’t see significant savings,” Witonis said. She added, “The No. 1 problem in jails is food fights” stemming from bad food.

Crichton won praise from Commissioner Mark Grover of Gray for “sticking his neck out” on a controversial proposal to try to save taxpayer money. But Grover said Joyce’s argument was “persuasive with respect to the value provided by the current food-service staff” and that the manager’s proposal “is premature.”

“There’s a lot of value in not messing with something that works well … unless there’s a big prize down at the end if we go for a change,” Commissioner Thomas Coward of South Portland said, citing the efficiency of current kitchen setup. “We have to appreciate what we have now.”

Commissioners voted unanimously, 5-0, to reject Crichton’s proposal to seek private bids, but didn’t rule out looking again at Crichton’s idea in the future.

Ted Cohen of South Portland is a freelance reporter and periodic contributor to The Forecaster. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @tedcohen1.

Sidebar Elements

Cumberland County Jail meal tab

2013 county budget: $34 million.

Jail budget: $16.5 million.

Jail personnel cost: $10.4 million.

Cost of food and groceries for inmates: $592,000.

Cost of kitchen utensils: $34,000.

Source: Cumberland County