ROCKLAND, Maine — Knox County Commissioners had no appetite Tuesday for switching who would run its jail kitchen.
Commissioners voted 3-0 to reject awarding the food service contract at the Knox County Jail to Aramark for three years. The decision came after a county kitchen worker, relatives of county workers and a union organizer questioned the process that led to Aramark being proposed.
Commission Chair Carol Maines said she would like to see a year’s worth of financial figures on savings being implemented by the current kitchen workers before considering changing operators.
The vote this week is a reversal from a July 9 vote of the commissioners to authorize County Administrator Andrew Hart to sign a contract with Aramark.
Hart said he sought commissioner approval even after the July vote because the issue had become a political hot potato.
“This morphed into something out of control,” Hart said.
The county administrators said kitchen staffers and their family members contacted state legislators, the governor’s office and the Maine Department of Corrections.
The county solicited proposals in June from vendors to provide food services in an attempt to save money, Hart said. Aramark was the only company that submitted a bid, he said.
After Aramark submitted its bid, which showed it could save the county $30,000 a year in food services, the kitchen staff came up with ways to change the menu and operations to save nearly that same amount, Hart said. He said, however, that there were several different spreadsheets of numbers provided, and he is not sure what the savings will be or if there will be any.
The jail food budget is $280,000 for the year.
Kitchen employee John Abbott said the way Aramark would save money would be to reduce the pay and benefits of workers. The kitchen has two full-time and two part-time workers, who all would have to apply to retain positions with Aramark.
Michael Nessinger, president of the National Corrections Employee Union, urged the commissioners not to switch to Aramark.
“We’re talking about four longtime employees in order to save, you don’t know how much,” Nessinger said.
Knox County Sheriff Donna Dennison and Jail Administrator John Hinkley recommended that the commissioners contract with Aramark for both the potential savings but also the services the company provides.
Aramark provides jail food services for York and Kennebec counties and the Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset, Hinkley said, and those entities are happy with the services.
“Aramark’s proposal will result in savings, although the exact amount is difficult to predict,” Hinkley said. “However, savings alone is not the full basis for our decision. Aramark has a staff of registered dieticians dedicated solely to their corrections clients, providing expertise and best practices from throughout the country.”
Aramark also has a training program for trusted inmates to provide them with culinary skills. The training could result in the inmates receiving certification that is recognized by the National Restaurant Association. Hinkley said this could help reduce recidivism.
Nessinger questioned that claim, saying Knox County does not even know the recidivism rate of inmates.
Commissioner Roger Moody said the county does need to make changes but acknowledged that there would be little, if any, savings in the short term. Moody said he has attended state meetings on the future of county jails, and what will happen to the facility is uncertain.
“I don’t know what will happen to this jail. It could be closed, it could be cut in half, it could be expanded,” Moody said.
The vote came after two hours of discussion.