Originally created 06/16/04

Senior meals choice delayed



Augusta commissioners postponed action Tuesday on a contract with a Florida company to provide meals for four senior nutrition sites until Superior Court Judge William M. Fleming Jr. rules on a lawsuit filed by the Senior Citizens Council of Greater Augusta challenging the contract.

Judge Fleming held a 2-hour hearing on the issue Monday and gave attorneys for the council and the CSRA Regional Development Center until Friday to submit briefs, after which he will decide whether to hold another hearing or rule on the case.

At issue is the food service contract that provides meals to elderly and handicapped residents throughout the 16-county area. In March, the regional development center board awarded the contract to Florida-based G.A. Foods Inc.

Senior Center Attorney Shawn Hammond said the move will cost Augusta more than $340,000 immediately if it goes into effect as planned July 1, and will cause program cutbacks and lead to the 15th Street center's closure.

"How can you provide the same level of service with $340,000 less as of July 1?" Mr. Hammond asked. "You just can't do it. This is what the county needs to pay attention to."

Commissioner Andy Cheek said the new contract sounded like a "bad deal that will cost the city money," an idea he warned he wouldn't take lightly.

"If something comes back before this board that includes city government subsidizing senior centers for $170,000 a year to replace money they lost from their food services program ... If we see a reduction of services and quality across the board for our seniors, this is one commissioner that will fight like hell to stop it," he said.

Jeannette Cummings, the director of the Area Agency on Aging at the RDC, assured commissioners there would be no interruption or decline in meal quality or services.

"A lot of misinformation has been said in the community," she said. "In terms of an increase to the meals program, that information is not correct."

The development center abruptly rebid the contract earlier this year based on what Director Andy Crosson said was a survey of area counties, some of which he said were dissatisfied with the service provided by the Augusta center.

Copies of the survey obtained by The Augusta Chronicle show that it was merely a form sent to each county asking whether they would be interested in collaborating with a local facility to provide congregate and homebound meals to senior citizens. Nine counties responded, and five indicated they would be.

Dr. Ron Schoeffler, the director of the senior center, said his agency's bid was lower than G.A. Foods' and included the costs of administering the program and delivery to homes, nutrition outreach and screening, while G.A. Foods' bid was for preparing the meals only, he said.

Budget shortfall

In other action Tuesday, commissioners approved cost-cutting measures designed to head off a $3.8 million budget shortfall this year.

The measures include a $1 million projected savings from not refilling vacant positions for 120 days; taking $1 million from reserves; $1 million by implementing a "modified" hiring freeze; a freeze on purchasing except for essentials and reduced travel and cell phone use.

Commissioners also voted not to approve environmental health fee increases proposed by the Richmond County Board of Health - after voting to increase them twice.

Most of the fees concerning restaurant licensing and inspection, sewage permits and other inspections would double under the new schedule.

After commissioners approved the fee increases, Commissioner Barbara Sims asked for reconsideration. A vote was taken, and the increases were approved, but a final 5-4 vote translated into no action.

Commissioners also approved an amendment to a city ordinance that will require appeals from Historic Preservation Commission decisions to be mediated before coming to the commission.

Reach Sylvia Cooper at (706) 823-3228 or sylvia.cooper@augustachronicle.com.