Union Democrat staff

Maybe this is why we elected the guy sheriff.

Jim Mele, Tuolumne County's top cop since 2006, this week saved taxpayers $175,000 - enough to put three more deputies on the street during these tough times.

So how did the sheriff pull this particular rabbit out of his hat?

He contracted with a private company to run the jail kitchen. Aramark Correctional Services, a nationwide firm that runs kitchens in 600 jails, will do the job for $357,000 a year. Now the Sheriff's Department is paying $532,000 annually to feed its inmates.

Not only that, but Aramark will hire two of the three county cooks whose jobs were on the line and employ the third, who was considering retirement, part time.

Aramark will also run the jail commissary, which supplies inmates with soap. deodorant, snacks, candy and other sundries. That move will save jail staff members four to eight hours a week, time they can better use to monitor and supervise those behind bars.

Picked from several bidders, Aramark will furnish meals at the 140-inmate capacity jail for between $2.18 and $2.65 a meal - a substantial savings over those now provided by the county staff.

One source of savings is obvious: "We buy loaves of bread by the dozen; they buy them by the million," said Mele, citing an "economy of scale" that translates into tens of thousands in savings. Lower salary and benefit costs and continued use of inmates in the kitchen will save more yet.

Aramark's three-year contract begins Feb. 1, and Mele said the transition will be "seamless" and the quality of food consistent.

But it will end an era of county food preparation that began in the 1850s and ran through dozens of sheriffs. In fact, Mele said, legendary Sheriff John Henry Dambacher's wife cooked for the bootleggers and bandits he kept behind bars during the Depression.

But moving to private operation is an idea whose time has come. "These days it's important for those in government to make good business decisions," understated Mele.

Mele hired a firm that specializes in a needed service and, free of regulations that often encumber government, can provide it more efficiently and economically. In doing so, he followed an example the county set in contracting out services earlier provided by Tuolumne General Hospital.

And the sheriff may not be done yet.

"We're looking at every contract and service to see if there is a better and cheaper way to do it," said Mele.

With even tougher times ahead, pointed out Tuolumne County Supervisor Dick Pland, "this is exactly the type of thing we are going to have to do at all levels."