The switch to a different food vendor was done without competitive bids.
By STEPHEN SIFFand PEGGY SINKOVICH
VINDICATOR TRUMBULL STAFF
WARREN -- Top Trumbull County officials were involved in steering $159,000 worth of food service contracts to a Youngstown company.
Acme Steak Co., owned by Michael Mike, didn't do any business with Trumbull County until November.
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.
Late last year, Commissioner James Tsagaris and Tony Carson, the county's director of purchasing, approached officials at the county jail and the juvenile justice center to begin shopping at Acme.
The prices were better, they said.
"If there is a way to save the county money, I'll do it," Carson said. He said he is always open to proposals from food companies who think they can offer better prices.
Carson said the county prosecutor told him that food service did not have to be competitively bid.
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 realized it was not.
"I think we are going to place it out for bid this year," Tsagaris said.
The jail and several other county departments 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.
Question on prices
Whether Acme's prices are better is open to interpretation.
Six months ago, Acme lost a contract to provide food to Mountaineer Racetrack after the Chester, W.Va., facility put the contract out for bidding.
"The prices just weren't competitive," said Tamara Pettit, racetrack spokeswoman.
Juvenile justice center employees found mistakes on a list circulated by Tsagaris and Carson comparing Acme's prices to those of 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.
Juvenile justice center officials used the prices offered by Acme to negotiate better deals from their suppliers, she said. 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.
Savings at jail
The Trumbull County jail did make the switch. As a result, the price the county has paid per inmate-meal has dropped from between 85 and 90 cents to between 70 and 75 cents, Carson said.
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.