They say there’s no such thing as a free lunch, but that’s not true for workers at many Nueces County vaccination clinics.
The county is picking up the tab on these meals, and some county commissioners want to know just how much the county is spending, and if taxpayers will be stuck with the check.
Nueces County has spent more than $120,000 to feed employees and volunteers working vaccination sites since the start of 2021.
At the Oct. 27 commissioners court meeting, Nueces County Judge Barbara Canales told commissioners meals were for employees and volunteers working 10-12 hour days.
However, documents obtained by KRIS 6 News show that in addition to the nearly $100,000 spent on meals this year for vaccination events at the Richard M. Borchard Regional Fairgrounds, meals were also bought to feed workers at smaller vaccination sites.
“We have a fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayer and that’s an excessive amount of money spent on lunches,” said Pct. 4 county commissioner Brent Chesney.
Chesney says he and other commissioners had no idea the extent of how much money was being spent on meals for vaccination clinics.
Between May 30 and June 30 of this year, Nueces County purchased food for 20 such vaccination events. At those clinics, an average of 31 meals were bought for an average of 10 workers, who worked an average of 5.28 hours a shift.
“Doesn’t add up,” Chesney said. “Thirty-one meals, 10 workers, five hours, that wouldn’t fall under the criteria I would think you should provide lunch for.”
“Feeding the people is part of the operation,” Canales said. "Feeding the volunteers, feeding the staff is part of the operation, and not only is it FEMA eligible, we’ve already received the dollars.”
Nueces County received $5 million for COVID-19 vaccine costs at the Richard M. Borchard Regional Fairgrounds through public assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Of that, $2.5 million was paid to the county in advance.
“We have the dollars, and they’re not taxpayer dollars from our ad valorem, they’re United States tax dollars and we got them to perform, these operations,” Canales said.
But that doesn’t explain the number of meals ordered. For a June 21 clinic at the Nueces County Courthouse, the county spent $223.75 at Shoreline Sandwich Company on 25 orders of chicken tenders and mac and cheese. Activity logs show 10 volunteers worked that clinic.
“Well, all I can say is they eat well,” said Pct. 1 county commissioner Robert Hernandez, who is troubled by the numbers.
“It does set off an alarm, makes you wonder what’s going on,” Hernandez said. “I did ask in commissioners court what kind of meals are we buying, for who and how many people, how many locations?”
So where did the extra meals go?
“If there’s 10 people there and 25 were ordered, there’s probably some other operation that they’re ordering for and it got booked to one location when maybe they weren’t feeding multiple locations,” Canales said.
The nearest clinic to the courthouse June 21 was at Buc Stadium. Documents attached to the receipt indicate the food was purchased for the vaccine clinic at the courthouse, based on how the documents are itemized for reimbursement.
Another receipt, dated June 1, is an example of how the county accounts for where food ends up. In this case, food purchased on one date went to three different vaccine clinics for three different dates.
“I don’t buy the lunches, OK? I don’t,” Canales said. “There’s probably a supervisor or somebody who’s in charge of the logistics for that day.”
In each of these cases, the meals were purchased by Canales’ chief of staff. That’s the case for all 20 clinics between May 30 and June 30 we’re referring to.
“If this is something that somebody says needs to be explained, I’m going to work on it,” Canales said.
6 Investigates wanted to ask Maggie Turner about these receipts and what happened to the extra meals, but she declined comment.
Responding to a question from a county auditor about the eligibility of meals being provided at the fairgrounds, the county’s COVID-19 reimbursement consultant, Hagerty said “there is an inherent risk associated with pursuing food and food related costs due to the burden of proof required by the county.”
Asked again a county auditor for an opinion in August, Hagerty again told the county recovering these costs could be challenging.
“Taxpayers shouldn’t be left on the hook for something like that,” said Hernandez.
“The reason that Hagerty said that is because we were asking them the questions,” Canales explained.
Canales says since the August opinion, Hagerty has since told the county the meals are reimbursable.
When county commissioners voiced their concerns October 27, Canales initially told commissioners the meals were paid for by donations in excess of $30,000. Later in the same meeting, Nueces County Auditor Dale Atchley told commissioners the county received donations totaling $18,898.
After subtracting costs already reimbursed and donations, Canales says the county still has a little more than $44,000 left to recoup. Money she’s confident the county will get back.
“If the federal government did not want meals to be considered, they would not have placed this as a reimbursable item,” Canales said.
Commissioners, however, aren’t as optimistic.
“These are tax dollars that we don’t believe will probably be reimbursed or will be very difficult to get reimbursed,” said Chesney.
Commissioners are now asking questions and taking a closer look at expenditures. That includes tabs of more than a thousand dollars from Grumbles and Los Toros Tacos, both for March 30th vaccine clinics.