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Precise information about this particular use of our tax dollars has been difficult to obtain. Why? To backtrack a bit, fragments of dollar amounts spent by the city on catering came to my attention while doing research on another article. Julie Hill, Director of Corporate Communications for the City of Charlotte, was slow in responding to questions about city council meetings' catering expenses.
Finally, and after piquing my interest, she reported the City Manager/City Council is spending approximately $31,000 this year on catering which includes Council Dinner Meetings, Agenda Briefing Luncheons, Council Committee Meetings, various district meetings, and the Mayor's Business Breakfast. It should be noted that free dinners are provided to the local media, including some who write for Creative Loafing, at some governmental meetings, including City Council meetings.
However, that $31,000 is only one slice of the local government catering pie. As of April 12, 2001, the year to date total of what the city has paid to seven caterers is $209,705.68. Specifically, a company called Creative Catering received $150,756; Waiters Choice received $26,812; Shomars (which has a restaurant in the building) received 25,816; Something Classic received $2,692; Reid's Fine Foods received $2,576; La-Tea-Da (sic) received $687; and Arthur's received $367.
As reported earlier, Mecklenburg County paid $19,000 to Creative Catering for catering services for the 50 meetings of the Mecklenburg County Commissioners last year. From July 1, 2000 until April 15, 2001, Mecklenburg County has spent $99,438 on five caterers: Creative Catering $73,424; Showmars $11,837; Waiter's Choice Catering 8,283; Something Classic Catering $3,432; and La-Tea-Da's (sic) $2,461.
The Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools reported that they spent $16,067.55 on catering fiscal year to date and that 100 percent of that was paid to Creative Catering.
Creative Catering, a local company located at 9714 Spring Park Drive, has received at least $240,247.29 from the city, county, and CMS since July 1, 2000. Interestingly, many in the local food community, by that I mean other caterers, restaurateurs and chefs, have never heard of Creative Catering. Corey McFarland, the owner of Creative Catering, stated he won the bid for this work and would not discuss how much he charged the city, county, or CMS. However, the city, county, and CMS have all stated that Creative Catering did not win a bid since catering does not require a bid. Usually, items which cost over $100,000 have formal Request For Proposals issued. Since the $309,000 is not a one-time number, but rather a sum, it does not require a bid.
Last year, calendar year 2000, Mecklenburg County paid Creative Catering $85,174. City PR director Hill said the city paid Creative Catering $61,799 during Fiscal Year 1999-2000, but weeks later revised that number by stating, The real figure is probably double that. By press time, Hill had not provided an exact number.
The catering picture is not a clear one. Since catering isn't a line item in the budget and departments are free to use any caterer, I've been told the only way to determine who is catering and how much they are paid is to submit the names of all caterers and find out how much each was paid. There are approximately 170 caterers listed in the local BellSouth Yellow Pages.
Should catering services for local government agencies and legislative boards have to go through a public bid process? Should all catering companies have equal access to the city and county government offices? Should there be policies regulating the use of caterers by city and county governments? Are the members of Charlotte City Council aware how much has been spent this year on catering?
When asked, councilman Mike Castano responded, No. This is the first I have heard that figure. If it's that much money, it should be a bid.
Another councilman, Joe White, responded, With as much food as I see served in the government center, it's not surprising. White explained that council meetings are held during the dinner hours and he rarely had the luxury to eat at home. However, he did suggest that it might be worthwhile to question the process.
Councilman Rod Autrey commented, It is a lot of money and I would just say if we are not bidding it, we should be bidding it. We need to determine what the policy is and what the process is to make sure we get a good product at a fair price.