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Irvine, California

Keywords: Social Services, Competitive Bidding, Failed Contract

Seniors Meal Program

Across the country, federal law dictates that local Agencies on Aging provide a meal program for senior citizens. For the City of Irvine, responsibility for this task lies with Orange County, a large urban county that includes more than thirty different municipal governments.

Rather than allow each municipality design its own meal program, the county used to be divided into three service districts, with a single meal service provider for each district. In Irvines case, the service district included eighteen different municipalities. Each district contract was administered by a non-profit agency, who then hired a private food service company to prepare and deliver the meals to city-run seniors centers.

The complexity of the service arrangement resulted in the city having no control over the program, even though it was the final consumer of the service. Because it was the county that paid for the service (with federal dollars), all decisions regarding service delivery and program design were made at the county level. Yet the two levels of government had different ideas of what constituted quality service. For county officials, service quality was measured in program efficiency; distributing the largest number of meals at the lowest cost was their primary goal. In contrast, the citys primary concern was to deliver high quality meals, since its employees had to interact with the senior citizens that used the service on a daily basis.

The meal program was brought back in house in June 1998 after 10 years with the private contractor. It took the city five years to recognize the problem, says the Superintendent of Senior Services, and another five to fix it. Poor service quality was the principal reason for bringing the service back in house. Lunch-time meals were prepared at a location eighteen miles away, and put on delivery trucks at 4:00 am. By the time the food was served at noon, few seniors were interested in eating it.

Slow delivery times were one reason for poor quality food, but cost considerations were another. The federal dollars used to pay for the program were insufficient to pay for the service as it was being administered by the county. Not only did the county have to pay its own administrative and overhead costs, it also had to pay the regional non-profit agency responsible for administering the program, who then had to pay the private contractor, who needed to make a profit off each meal.

Bringing the Service Back In

Irvine was able to bring the service back in by bidding on its own contract when the most recent Request for Proposals (RFP) was issued. Its bid was similar to those put in by private contractors, but the city promised higher quality service. Simply getting the opportunity to bid involved months of lobbying the Orange County Board of Supervisors, who were wary of allowing a government agency to bid on a competitive contract. Opposition to the plan centered on the citys lack of experience in the food service industry. After considerable debate, however, city officials, with the backing of two local seniors groups, were able to convince the county that they had the qualifications necessary to run the program.

Facilities for the new service already existed in one of the citys two senior centers. Built just five years ago, the developers of the center had the foresight to include kitchen facilities in the new building, in anticipation for a growing elderly population in the area. Administration of the program was folded into the routine activities of center management. Between four and six new food service jobs were added to the centers payroll.

Since returning to public hands, satisfaction with the service has increased dramatically. In the year since the city took over the meal plan, use of the service has increased by over 100 percent.

Case based on interviews with George Searcy, Superintendent of Senior Services, City of Irvine, California, June 24, 1999 and August 3, 1999.