Officials guided contracts to Acme
Mountaineer says it dropped Acme because its prices weren't competitive.
By STEPHEN SIFF
and PEGGY SINKOVICH
VINDICATOR TRUMBULL STAFF
WARREN -- Top Trumbull County officials were personally involved in steering $159,000 worth of food service contracts to one Youngstown company.
Acme Steak Co., owned by Michael Mike, didn't do any business with Trumbull County until October, when the county jail signed on.
Contracts to provide food to the jail, juvenile justice center, the board of mental retardation and developmental disabilities and other county kitchens have never been bid out, officials say.
Tony Carson, the county purchasing agent, said the county prosecutor told him food service does not have to be competitively bid. Prosecutor Dennis Watkins could not be reached.
Late last year, Commissioner James Tsagaris and Carson approached officials at the county jail and the juvenile justice center to begin buying from Acme.
The prices were better, they said.
"If there is a way to save the county money, I'll do it," Carson said, adding he is always open to proposals from food companies who think they can offer better prices.
Tsagaris initially said the contract for food service had been put out to bid.
"Yes it was," he said. "Yes, yes, yes, yes."
After checking county records, he said, "I think we are going to place it out for bid this year."
The jail and several other county departments, such as maintenance, MRDD and family court, began using Acme Steak toward the end of last year, after receiving a letter, and in some cases, a personal visit, from Tsagaris and Carson alerting them to Acme's lower prices.
Since then, Acme has collected $159,000 in county checks from various components in those departments.
Whether or not Acme's prices are better is open to interpretation.
Six months ago, Acme lost a contract to provide food to Mountaineer Racetrack & amp; Resort after the Chester, W.Va., facility put the contract out for bidding.
"The prices just weren't competitive," said Tamara Pettit, Mountaineer spokeswoman.
Juvenile justice center employees found mistakes on a list circulated by Tsagaris and Carson comparing Acme's prices to other suppliers, juvenile Judge Pamela Rintala wrote to Tsagaris.
"Some of the prices looked better, but when you looked at the product, the size was smaller or the counts were different," said Judge Rintala, who is responsible for the juvenile justice center.
She wrote Tsagaris after he invited one of her employees to the commissioner's office to discuss switching food service providers.
Judge Rintala said she did not feel pressured to switch.
"I felt like they thought we were honestly going to save money with Acme," she said.
On saving money
Juvenile justice center officials used the prices offered by Acme to negotiate better deals from their suppliers, she said.
It is difficult to judge whether they would have saved money or not.
The juvenile center's expenditures on food are up this year, but officials say they recently started participating in the federal school lunch program and will be getting some money back. The program requires hot breakfasts, something they didn't offer in the past.
Since October, the price paid for meals at the county jail dropped from 89 cents to 74 cents each.
"It's not just Acme [prices]. I think it [the drop in cost] can be attributed to a number of factors," said Ernie Cook, chief deputy.
Some of those factors are a reduction in portion size and serving less costly menu items.
Sheriff Thomas Altiere said he did not compare Acme's prices with the jail's former vendor.
"The commissioners and Tony Carson did all the checking on the prices and they told me that we would save money.
"That's all I had to hear," Altiere said.
A man who answered the phone Monday at Acme said he couldn't comment.