The kitchen floor at the Muscogee County Jail has become such a safety hazard that immediate repairs are needed, according to city officials.
City Manager Isaiah Hugley sounded the alarm on behalf of the Muscogee County Sheriff’s Office at a recent Columbus Council meeting. He requested approval for authorizing the spending of Other Local Option Sales Tax dollars to bring in a mobile kitchen from California while the floor is being repaired.
“The tile floor in the kitchen at the Muscogee County Jail is both a safety hazard and in violation of health codes,” according to information provided by the city. “The floor is cracked/chipped, missing grout, and has areas of pooling with standing water and continues to deteriorate. The Sheriff’s Office is working with the Engineering Department to remove the existing floor and install new floor drains along with the new flooring system.”
City Finance Director Angelica Alexander said the cost variance is due to the construction time period, which could range anywhere from 30 to 60 days.
Before approving the project with a unanimous vote, Councilors Walker Garrett and Judy Thomas asked some questions about the cost and spending.
Garrett said someone in the audience sent a quote for a mobile kitchen that feeds 2,000 at $7,000 a month, and asked what was driving up the cost of the city estimate.
Hugley said it’s not unusual for citizens to think the city can do a project for less, but there are many things to consider.
“... We spend $4,005 on a radio and someone will send me an email saying, ‘I can get it for $250 down at the local store,’” he said. “Council members around this table who’ve been here have heard that time and time and time and time again. It’s not that simple.
“But the process is open to any and all,” he said. “And if they can meet the specs and do what we’re trying to do to meet the Department of Justice requirements for $7,000, I’ll take it any day.”
Mayor Teresa Tomlinson said: “I don’t want anybody to get the impression that these guys over at the jail are getting, you know, frittatas and souffles,” she said. “It’s like, what, 59 cents a meal we pay or something? ... These guys are eating base food.”
Major Joe McCrea said the cost per inmate, per meal, is more like 89 cents. The mobile kitchen would increase that amount by about 62 cents per meal for each inmate, and inmates are fed three times day. He said the mobile kitchen will require a lot of paper goods, which increases the cost.
“It’s not like they can wash plates,” he said. “Everything is cooked and wrapped for every meal. It’s just a high volume of paper products.”
The mobile kitchen is coming from California, he said, because it’s not available in any other state.
Alexander said Trinity Services Group, the jail’s food services vendor, is responsible for obtaining the mobile kitchen under the current contract. “We just have to pay for it,” she said.
Chief Deputy Troy Culpepper said the arrangement makes it less taxing on the Sheriff’s Office.
“... If we independently go out and do this, then we’re going to be responsible, and Burger King on 4th Avenue is going to get lit up,” he said. “The point is (Trinity Service Group) is in the food service business, and we just saw them as the contracted entity that could do this. They’re going to be responsible for keeping that kitchen operating.”
“... I think there’s more risk involved running a mobile kitchen versus running the regular kitchen that’s in the jail,” he said. “We were just trying to stay out of the mobile kitchen business, as well, and set the accountability where it needs to be.”
Hugley said the city is very concerned about prisoners rights because of the laws that protect them.
“If an AC goes out in the Government Center building, and we have to order a part out of Atlanta, we might be able to wait until tomorrow,” he said. “But if it goes out in the jail we have to drive to Atlanta and get it tonight because of their protection and their rights. So it has to be done right.”
Councilor Thomas asked why the funding was coming out of the public safety OLOST contingency fund instead of funds designated for infrastructure.
“The bottom line is while it’s a public building, it’s a public safety facility, and it makes sense to use public safety OLOST to fund this need for public safety,” said Hugley.
“I don’t have a problem using OLOST money for this purpose,” Thomas said. “I’m just questioning because it is construction, if you will, and why would it not be coming out of the infrastructure side? I don’t want us to get into the habit of just whoever happens to have money, we’ll take it.”
Hugley said Sheriff Donna Tompkins had requested staff pay raises similar to what CPD received over the past few years, which was never funded. He said the city set aside the money in the contingency fund, and that’s the money that will be used for the mobile kitchen.
City officials said there’s about $300,000 allocated in the general fund for infrastructure, and the mobile kitchen would eat up much of that money.
Thomas said she still had reservations.
“I would tell you, I am somewhat concerned that you have said that this money was requested by the Sheriff’s Office, they were told no, and then, ‘So let’s use it for something else in the Sheriff’s Office,’ ” she said. “I don’t have any doubt in my mind that this kitchen needs to be fixed and that it needs to be fixed right away. But I do not want us to get into the habit of using this OLOST money unless it’s the appropriate thing to do.”
In the end, councilors approved the Sheriff’s Office’s request for the mobile kitchen, along with $20,000 to purchase and/or replace 35 inoperable and outdated Tasers. Hugley said the Taser purchases are a five-year deal. The first $20,000 will be taken out of contingency, and then the next four years the Sheriff’s Office will make the request in her budget. Columbus Council then will determine if the remaining payments should come out OLOST dollars or out of the general fund.
“Purchasing of the Tasers with associated equipment through the discounted purchase plan provided by the vendor will net a savings of approximately $18,000,” according to information from the city. “The Tasers and associated equipment will be utilized by the Sheriff Deputies to provide a weapons option that could prevent the necessity for ‘deadly force,’ thereby possibly preventing serious injury to an officer, or a citizen taken into custody.”