You know better than to cry over spilled milk.
But when you read this, you may want to.
A popular, long-term county employee is out of a job and local taxpayers are facing a $100,000 bill. What’s more, perfectly good milk is being thrown in the trash because the county didn’t follow in minute detail the fate of about 10 percent of the little milk cartons used in 2009 and 2010 in a meals program jointly sponsored by the county and Collier County schools.
At issue is the administration of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Summer Food Service Program. According to the Florida Department of Education’s Food and Nutrition Management Section, which oversees the program, Collier County has been fraudulently submitting claims in an effort to milk, no pun intended, more money from the system.
That sounds almost criminal but the reality, as explained by Collier Parks and Recreation Administrator Marla Ramsey, is quite different.
The basis for the claim against the county is the fact that the number of milks served don’t match the number of meals, roughly 580,000 over the two years in question, served through the program at about 50 sites such as day care centers.
During 2009 and 2010, the FNMS found a discrepancy of about 57,000 meals in which it appeared milk had not been served. It calls the discrepancy and “overclaim” and demands repayment of $101,000.
Further, Debra Stecklein, director of FNMS, singled out Parks and Recreation supervisor Jim Thomas, a fixture at Collier County parks for more than two decades, as responsible. She described the county and Thomas as, “seriously deficient,” in operating the program.
In an July 28 letter, Stecklein effectively told Collier County to get rid of Thomas or face disqualification from the meals program in the future.
Thomas resigned last week. Commissioner Jim Coletta lamented the loss of a good employee he said he first met about 30 years ago, ironically, when Thomas showed up at Coletta’s equipment rental business seeking tents for a summer meals program for kids.
Ramsey offered a logical explanation for the shortage of milks served but as County Attorney Jeff Klatzkow noted during Wednesday’s county commission meeting, logic doesn’t carry much weight when confronting a government bureaucracy.
As a school year ends, the school system has milk left over that it has already paid for, Ramsey said. That milk was brought to the meals sites and served as the summers of 2009 and 2010 began, accounting for some of the mismatch between the number of meals and the number of milks.
At the end of a day, there is routinely milk left unopened. Program staff would put that milk back in the refrigerator and serve it the next day rather than ordering extra milks, again creating a difference in the number of meals and the number of milks attributed to the meals program in a given day.
Ramsey admits receipts for the milk from the schools and tabulations of the recycled milk were not available to explain the difference to the state. She met with FNMS representatives, without an attorney at her side, in August to try to resolve the situation. No dice.
In a letter to the county, Stecklein demanded, among other things, that the county provide, “justification for meals served without milk.” So every time little Johnny turns up his nose at milk, someone is supposed to fill out a form?
Here’s a crazy idea for the paper pushers at FNMS: Gather sworn affidavits from the people involved in salvaging the unused milk as a way of assuaging concerns that someone might have been getting rich stealing half-pints of milk. Instruct county staff in the proper way to handle excess milk going forward _ it can’t be to throw it away, can it? _ and move on. If you must, put a letter of reprimand in Thomas’s file. It will offer a balance to the reams of commendations he’s earned over the years.
An obviously frustrated Ramsey told commissioners in the future, county workers will throw out whatever milk is unused, rather than risk the additional ire of the state and federal governments. “Anything that’s left goes into the garbage ma’am,” Ramsey told Commissioner Donna Fiala, who wondered if excess milk couldn’t be put out for people to take home.
Commissioner Georgia Hiller, citing the county’s lack of documentation, questioned the competence of county administrators and wondered if it is worthwhile for the county to appeal the $101,000 demand.
But Commission Chairman Fred Coyle, matching Ramsey’s level of frustration, took an alternate view. “By publicly opposing this, whether we have grounds or not, we expose this program. It all resulted from a good faith attempt to keep from throwing perfectly good milk in the trash can. And now we’re throwing perfectly good milk in the trash can.”
It’s enough to make a person want to cry. Or maybe to scream.
Connect with Brent Batten at naplesnews.com/staff/brent_batten