Originally created 08/24/04

Expert backs food contract



Nothing in the rules says it's all right, but that doesn't make it wrong, said an expert witness called to testify Monday on behalf of the defendants in a legal battle over who provides meals to the area's senior citizens.

Maria Greene, the director of the Georgia Department of Human Services' division for aging services, testified that the rules must be followed unless a request for exemption is granted, but she deferred to her program operating manager on the issue.

That manager, Beverly Littlefield, testified Monday in Richmond County Superior Court that the current guidelines don't give the CSRA Regional Development Center the right or duty to contract with a food vendor directly. However, she testified, the guidelines are used only to provide direction to the state's 12 Area Agencies on Aging, operated in Augusta by the CSRA Regional Development Center.

In May, the Senior Citizens Council filed suit against the center, asking that the contract it granted G.A. Food Service Inc. be voided. The right to contract with a food vendor, the Senior Citizens Council contends, is the council's exclusive duty as service provider.

When the Senior Citizens Council lost the contract to provide meals for seniors in the 14-county area, it was crippled financially and has since dropped nearly all services for the elderly.

As a service provider, the Senior Citizens Council provided not only meals for elderly residents at public centers and in their homes, but also wellness and recreation programs in its contracts with the Regional Development Center, said Dr. Ron Schoeffler, the executive director of the council.

Ms. Greene testified that she knew the Regional Development Center had stopped providing funds to the Senior Citizens Center to operate services for the elderly. But she acknowledged she wrote a letter this month to a local resident stating that nutrition and fitness services would continue.

She assumed it was the Regional Development Center that gave her that assurance, Ms. Greene testified.

Dr. Schoeffler testified that in his 24 years of business providing services for seniors in Georgia, he has never known of any state regulation that allows the Regional Development Center to select the food vendor.

On Monday, Ms. Littlefield testified that her agency's 41-page guidelines for the nutrition program never say that the guidelines can be ignored. However, she said, guidelines are not laws; they are intended to provide direction.

Three-quarters of the money used to provide meals for senior citizens and disabled residents comes from the federal government. State and local governments kicked in the rest of the estimated $30 million budget that is split between the 12 Area Agencies on Aging.

Augusta commissioners were told that the switch to G.A. Foods would save the city about $70,000 a year, Commissioner Andy Cheek testified Monday.

Instead, Mr. Cheek said, the city needs nearly $150,000 more to hire staff at public centers where senior citizens gather for meals.

Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or sandy.hodson@augustachronicle.com.

Testimony continues today in Richmond County Superior Court in the legal battle over who provides local senior citizens' meals.