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Sheriff wants to privatize jail food service

"'Government has no business running a food service,' Hawley contendsBy JESSIE STENSLANDFeatures editorJail cook Jim Kuenle cooks supper for 51 from scratch in the roomy, stainless-steel kitchen below the Island County slammer. Kuenle gets help from jail inmates who earn good time by working in the kitchen or laundry facility. Today, the menu includes generous helpings of ground beef stew, fresh tossed salad, dinner rolls and carrot cake - typical fare for inmates who are fed about 3,000 calories a day.But for Kuenle, a retired Navy cook, the days of preparing food en mass may be numbered. Island County Sheriff Mike Hawley said he hopes to bring in a private company to run the kitchen and laundry under contract with the county. That would mean Kuenle would lose his job.This is the sort of operation that should be privatized, Hawley said. The government has no business running a food service. It's far more efficient if run by private industry.In fact, Hawley estimates a savings of more than $20,000 a year. But there's a problem. The Sheriff's Department needs the company to come in now, or at least as soon as possible because he doesn't have enough cooks. He asked the county commissioners Wednesday to allow him to forgo the usual process of calling for bids to get a company in as soon as possible.We need to get a vendor on board, said Administrative Deputy Jan Smith, unless they want me down there flipping burgers or making peanut butter sandwiches.Normally, the kitchen is run by three full-time and one half-time cook. First, a cook retired. Then the half-time cook unexpectedly quit. Hawley said he can't just go out and quickly rehire other cooks because they are civil service positions and they have to go through the civil service procedure. Also, the cook who retired is using up her vacation hours and the commissioners' policy is that she can't be replaced until her vacation is used up.The shortage of cooks has been such a problem that the jail had to resort to ordering Godfather's pizza to feed the prisoners. But Hawley said that ended after an ornery inmate complained that the pizza wasn't healthy.Hawley asked the commissioners to declare the situation an emergency, which under county codes would allow him to cut through the bidding process and quickly hire a company.The company Hawley proposes to hire under a yearlong contract is Consolidated Food Management. CFM specializes in running food service within jails and has contracts throughout the state. Hawley said he visited the jail in Kent to take a look at the operation and was very impressed.Under the proposal, CFM would run the kitchen and the jail laundry with the help of volunteer inmates. Hawley said kitchen is run as a training program that will give inmates new skills and experience in the food industry, though Island County Jail may look unusual on a resume.By privatizing the kitchen, Hawley said the county will save more than $20,000 in up-front hard funds. The jail serves an average of 180 meals a day. The cost per meal is about $2.44. The private company would cut that cost down to about $2.15 a meal, said Smith.Also, he says there will be a big savings in soft money. Sheriff's Department staff and other county employees won't have to deal with the copious paperwork that comes from running the food service.With running our own kitchen we've had to deal with all the headaches, Hawley said.For the two men who will lose their cooking jobs, Hawley said there's the possibility they'll find other jobs within county government. He currently has openings for a corrections officer and a patrol deputy. Under civil service, they will have priority treatment, he said.The only concerns inmates may have about Hawley's proposal is whether the quality of food will change. Kuenle says the food can't get much better. Most meals are made from scratch, from Creole bean soup to chicken legs and sweet potatoes. Every night he bakes a cake with fresh ingredients.Long-term inmates tend to put on quite a bit of weight.It's good food. I've heard that quite often from guys who've been around to other jails, he said. It's institutional cooking at its best.You can reach features editor Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611. "

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