Governor: Mich. to end privatization experiment with prison food

The move comes after years of problems such as maggots in food and smuggling by kitchen employees

By Paul Egan and Kathleen Gray
Detroit Free Press

LANSING, Mich. — Gov. Rick Snyder announced Wednesday that the state will end a four-year experiment with privatizing its prison food service after years of maggots in food, smuggling by kitchen employees, kitchen workers having sex with inmates, inadequate staffing levels and other problems documented by the Free Press in a series of articles.

That was the only bombshell in a 2018-19 budget plan in which Snyder aimed to contain spending amid ongoing efforts by lawmakers to further cut taxes while making modest additional investments in education, roads and infrastructure, and public safety.

Snyder's spending plan requires approval from the Legislature, where budget hearings begin next week.

Snyder announced the reversal of the state's prison privatization effort in presenting his $56.8-billion 2019 budget to joint appropriations committees of the Legislature.

Snyder, who spoke as union protesters from the Service Employees International Union gathered in the Capitol rotunda and tried to drown him out with chants of "Tricky Ricky," asked for $13.7 million to move back to state workers running the prison kitchens. Snyder called the privatization effort an area where "we haven't been successful."

"We've worked with a couple of different private vendors," Snyder said. "The benefits of continuing on that path don't outweigh the costs and we should transition back to doing it in-house."

The state's contract to feed about 40,000 to 43,000 prisoners at 33 facilities has been plagued with problems since it began in December 2013.

The Free Press, using Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act, documented a litany of problems, including meal shortages, maggots in the kitchen, the smuggling of drugs and other contraband by kitchen employees, kitchen workers engaging in sex acts with prisoners and even attempting to hire one inmate to have another inmate assaulted.

Nick Ciaramitaro, legislative director for American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 25, whose members used to staff the prison kitchen, said many of the more than 300 former workers have moved on to other jobs or retired, but he expects there will be a core workforce available to train new hires.

"It was a shocker," Ciaramitaro said of Snyder's announcement.

"I give him credit. It's one thing to try something — it's another thing to admit that it didn't work."

The state and Aramark Correctional Services of Philadelphia opted to end their $145.1-million contract about 18 months early in 2015 after the state balked at billing changes requested by Aramark. The state switched to a $158.8-million contract with Florida-based Trinity Services Group, but problems continued.

Corrections Department Director Heidi Washington said the state plans to bring about 350 state workers back into the prison kitchens when the Trinity contract expires July 31. The state and Trinity have mutually agreed to part ways after Trinity sought price increases, she said.

"While food service contracts achieved savings for taxpayers, the MDOC (Michigan Department of Corrections)determined that continued challenges with staffing vacancies, turnover, compliance with performance expectations, and a recent request by Trinity for additional funding warranted a return to state-run operations," Washington said in a news release.

Snyder said at a news conference that with projected price increases, using a contractor would cost "probably as much or more as what it would to do it ourselves." The privatization effort was worth trying, but "I don't think it turned out to be a good solution."

Lonnie Scott, executive director of the liberal group Progress Michigan, which has called for the cancellation of the contract for years, said "it’s about time Snyder showed some common sense and took our advice."

Anita Lloyd, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Corrections Organization, representing corrections officers, said the union had maintained from the start the kitchen food contract and poor food quality presented security concerns.

Corrections Department spokesman Chris Gautz said that of the $13.7 million Snyder requested for the food service change, only about $7 million is new money. Trinity wanted a $5.2-million annual increase in its contract, which meant savings from privatization would be reduced to less than $2 million a year, he said.

The agency will talk with 320 workers from Trinity and could hire some of them as state employees. The state will pay the workers $19 an hour, plus benefits. and they’ll be represented by AFSCME, he said.

Other budget highlights include:

Increases of $120 to $240 per pupil in the minimum foundation grant for K-12 schools, with most schools getting the $240 increase. The total increase for per-pupil funding is $312 million.

An extra $25 million in funding for the Flint water crisis, with most of that going to replacement of lead service lines, but money for educational, nutritional and other services also included.

An extra grant of up to $50 for each high school student enrolled in a career and technical training program.

An increase of $29.8 million for universities, bringing total funding for operations to more than $1.5 billion — an increase of 2%.

An extra $175 million in general funding for roads. That's above the $150 million in general fund expenditures for roads called for in the 2015 road funding deal.

The general fund remaining flat at about $10 billion, despite an inflation rate estimated at 1.9%.

An additional 50 Michigan State Police troopers will be funded with $3.8 million in ongoing funding, and a $3.1-million one-time payment. Also, Snyder recommends $3 million to train 80 new troopers to replace troopers who are retiring.

An allocation of $9.2 million for the Corrections Department to train more than 350 corrections officers — again mostly to fill vacancies resulting from retirements.

An extra $1.5 million for the Department of Natural Resources to fund 10 new conservation officers.

A $600,000 investment for a Sexual Assault Prevention and Education Initiative to help reduce and eliminate sexual assault on college campuses.

In addition to the spending measures, Snyder included in his budget two major initiatives to increase revenue — ones that he had earlier announced and acknowledged will be tough to get through the Republican-controlled Legislature in an an election year.

One is a major hike in state charges for dumping trash at landfill sites, which are mostly paid by haulers but passed on to consumers. Snyder wants to increase the state surcharge from 36 cents for every ton dumped to $4.75 — raising $79 million a year for cleanup of contaminated sites and other environmental work. Snyder said the change would cost the typical family less than $5 a year.

Snyder also wants water customers to pay a $5 annual fee to pay for improvements to aging infrastructure and replace lead water lines. The proposed fee, which would begin at $1 in 2020 and be fully implemented in 2024, would raise $100 million a year.

“It’s an election year and having to vote for a fee increase in an election year is difficult,” Snyder said. “But I believe this is important for our citizens. Either now or later, we need to get it done.”

Snyder said the budget "is exactly what we need to keep the state moving in a positive direction" and "by continuing our relentless support of areas like education, safety and transportation, we maximize the impact of the strategic initiatives we have implemented over the years."

Snyder, who is headed toward a potential showdown with lawmakers from both parties who want deeper personal income tax cuts than what he thinks the state can afford, added: "We need to ensure that the important work happening here in Michigan keeps accelerating.”

Sen. Dave Hildenbrand, R-Lowell, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, asked Snyder following the budget presentation about a possible compromise on the size of the personal exemption for Michigan taxpayers. The Legislature is working on bills that would increase the exemption well beyond what Snyder has recommended.

“I want to do it in partnership with you," Snyder said. "How do we do (it) so we’re not cutting out some critical programs like vests for troopers?"

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, described the budget as too little, too late.

"The governor is throwing pennies at our roads and schools and crossing his fingers that it makes up for his legacy of shortchanging Michiganders," Ananich said in a news release.

But state Rep. Fred Durhal, D-Detroit, called it "a pretty decent budget" for Snyder's last effort as a term-limited governor.

“I would be a proponent of putting money into the classroom and putting money into roads," Durhal told the Free Press. "Those are two of the major issues that folks in the communities want.”

The budget did not include funding for Snyder's proposed "Marshall Plan" for talent, which he has not rolled out in detail but has referenced as a way to improve training for high-tech jobs such as ones that are in high demand in the information technology sector.

"The governor will be talking about the Marshall Plan and funding in the next few weeks," State Budget Office spokesman Kurt Weiss said.

©2018 the Detroit Free Press

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