NAPLES — In 30-plus years of service with Collier County Parks and Recreation, Jim Thomas navigated through multiple changes in leadership, deflected unsatisfied customers and handled growing responsibilities with a booming laugh and a friendly demeanor.
Thomas resigned earlier this month under pressure from state Department of Education officials over what they termed as “severely deficient” management of the Summer Food Program, a federal/state/local partnership that offers breakfast and lunch to economically needy children when school is not in session.
Thomas’s main sin, according to the regulators, was that he allowed unopened milk cartons to be collected and served again, rather than being thrown away. A charge that SFP local employees had served pudding was withdrawn from the allegations against Thomas once inspectors verified that the pudding was served with the meal, not as a snack, because pudding is OK as long as it’s part of the meal and not a snack, as are ice cream and gelatin. Got it?
Thomas started with Collier County in the mid 1970s as a summer recreation assistant making $4 an hour. When he resigned he was making more than $64,000 a year as athletics supervisor. In that time he garnered praise from his bosses and the public alike. Ironically, much of that praise had to do with his handling of the Summer Food Program.
In 1999 Collier County was named one of five counties in the southeastern U.S. to win a “Summer Sunshine” award from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the SFP, earning Thomas a letter of praise for his personnel file.
In 2008, leaders with both the Boys and Girls Club of Collier County and the Collier County Housing Authority wrote Thomas to thank him for that year’s SFP at their facilities. “I would also like to praise your Immokalee staff who earned ‘Superior’ marks when our federal monitor was at the Immokalee Middle School reviewing them,” wrote Threasa Miller, of the Boys and Girls Club.
The state cites problems with the SFP in 2009 and 2010, seeking repayment of about $101,000 of the roughly $1.5 million in reimbursements the county received for the program for those two years. But as recently as May, when Thomas’s latest evaluation was done, he was still getting top marks for the SFP. He earned a “five” rating, the highest possible for his SFP role.
But an anonymous e-mail to the state in March changed things.
Its claim of fraudulent activity led the state to look at the SFP. That’s when the recycling of milk, to the tune of 57,000 cartons over the two years, was discovered.
Thomas’ boss, Marla Ramsey, told county commissioners earlier this month that program staff were simply trying to avoid throwing away good milk.
That argument carries no weight with Deborah Higgins, information specialist with the Department of Education, who responded to a series of questions about the case. She cites Rule 64E-11.002 (36) of the Florida Administrative Code that defines milk as a potentially hazardous food and Rule 64E-11.004(18) which states: “Individual portions of food once served to a customer shall not be served again, except those packaged foods, other than potentially hazardous foods, which remain in their undamaged original packaging and which are still wholesome may be re-served.”
Rule 64E-11.004 is long on details _ it includes a table showing how long corned beef can be held various temperatures _ but short on common sense. Anyone who’s ever been to a grocery store has taken an unopened container of milk out of a refrigerator, held it at room temperature for a while, then placed it back in a refrigerator unopened. Somehow, we survive.
Still, a rule’s a rule and Collier SFP staff, under the direction of Thomas, broke it so he’s out of a job.
The county is appealing the state’s demand for the $101,000 repayment. The appeal won’t seek to overturn the state’s requirement that Thomas have nothing to do with the SFP in the future, according to County Attorney Jeff Klatzkow. The case will be heard by a panel of judges at the state’s Second District Court of Appeal.
Thomas is the second Collier County administrator to lose a job in the past two months. Former housing director Marcy Krumbine stepped down in August after discrepancies were found between invoices submitted and work done on homes in the county’s housing rehabilitation program.
Two cases hardly constitute a pattern but it is worth noting that both Thomas and Krumbine were doing jobs that fall outside the government’s core functions.
Maybe, just maybe, if government stuck to the basics and left fixing houses to business and feeding the hungry to charity, it could avoid the sorts of entanglements brought on by the likes of Rule 64E-11.004.
Connect with Brent Batten at naplesnews.com/staff/brent_batten