Since the 1970s, the Stephens County Jail food contract has been handled by a local distributor.

On Monday, Stephens County commissioners learned from Tom Wheat, owner of Cable Meat Center in Marlow, that the food service contract was recently switched to a vendor based in Oklahoma City.

Wheat brought the issue to the commissioners’ attention calmly, but with his property tax bill in hand, as one way to show the seriousness of the matter.

Wheat told the commissioners that he’d been in business with the county on a steady basis since the days of Bill Alexander, a former sheriff.

“It’s about $3,000 a month, some months it’s less or some a little more,” he said.

But in January, he didn’t receive a purchase order, so he called the county Sheriff’s Department and spoke with Mike Roberts who, he said, indicated it was probably just an oversight. Then February rolled around, and again no purchase order. When it came time for the March order, and still nothing, Wheat put in another call. At that time, Roberts, who handles the food orders for the jail, told Wheat that the county jail would now be getting its food from U.S. Foods in Oklahoma City, Wheat said Monday.

“That kind of got my ire up. I realize you can’t micromanage, but we are a customer of the county,” Wheat said, as he mentioned how much he pays in property taxes, both personally and as a business. And he mentioned that his business generates a half-million dollar payroll, with all those employees also paying county taxes.

Wheat also pointed out other issues, including customer service and quality control.

And, he said, he’s not the only food vendor available in the county — citing Southwest Foods. Wheat said that while he understands it is easier for an agency to deal with only one vendor purchase order, it’s not wise to just deal with only one food vendor. Issues such as shortages, deliveries, quality and other problems can occur when limiting the food service to one vendor, he noted.

“I’m not greedy,” he said. “Between the two of us (locally), we can supply every food need.”

His biggest issue centers around the fact that the jail would be taking its business outside of the county — therefore tax dollars paid into the county would be leaving the area.

Commissioner chairman Dee Bowen asked Wheat if he had called Sheriff Jimmie Bruner to discuss the matter. Wheat said he did and received a return call from Administrative Assistant Debbie Walker, but learned that Mike Roberts was ultimately the person in charge of food ordering. Walker was recently assigned to handle administrative duties for the jail, under Sheriff Bruner.

The commissioners assured Wheat they would speak with the administrators at the jail, but said it was the jail’s decision.

On Monday, following the commissioners meeting, Walker mentioned staff turnover issues and trying to get things on track. She said they only wanted to use the taxpayer dollars in the best possible way.

“We randomly picked six or seven items and Cable Meat was quite a bit higher. I don’t think we meant to shut anyone out,” she said Monday. “That was not our intention.”

On Tuesday, Walker said she did invite Wheat to meet with her and Roberts to see if “we’re comparing apples to apples.”

But the meeting had not yet taken place.

“We compared 27 prices, and on everything but one, they (Cable Meat) appeared to be higher,” she said Tuesday.

Walker did not have figures on how much savings would occur per month by using an out-of-county vendor.

“No, I don’t think it’s even fair to do, unless we’re comparing apples to apples,” Walker said.

Walker said Monday that she will be looking at the orders each month and she would like to keep the business in the county, but would need a further comparison of the prices.

Wheat confirmed Tuesday that he’s received two calls from Walker this week, since the commissioners meeting. He is gathering invoices to do some comparison of prices before meeting with Walker.

“The invoices are public records,” he said. “You know, it’s not wise to buy out-of-county if you can buy in-county for the same price.”

Wheat is confident that between the two local food vendors, they can supply and meet the prices.

He said his fiscal year ends each September. For the FY 2006, total purchases through Cable Meat ordered by the county jail were $39,000.19; for 2005: $36,907; 2004: $39,044; and in 2003: $25,000.

But for the first three months of this fiscal year, October, November and December, purchases were $8,600 total and then no purchase orders came in 2007.

“So you can see, it wasn’t just a trickle (drop off),” he said.

He said he was aware there have been administration changes at the jail, and he will meet with Walker once he has collected the invoices and comparisons. He’s hopeful that an agreement can be reached.

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