Special Report: Free Lunch

By Andrew Douglas - bio | email | Twitter | Facebook

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC-TV) - There's no such thing as a free lunch.  An Action News 5 investigation has revealed the city of Memphis spends thousands of dollars on catered meals, for things like City Council meetings, mayoral luncheons, and more.

Lorene Essex is director of Human Resources, and according to records obtained by the Action News Five Investigators, her department racked up more than $27,000 in food and catering expenses during the last fiscal year.

"A breakfast, that's on there. We try to do at least three to four a year," she said. "We celebrate about one hundred employees and their families out at the Botanic Gardens."

Breakfast, an event at the Botanic Gardens, training lunches...the list is long and expensive.  For example, documents show that during a health fair at the Memphis Zoo, Human Resources spent nearly $2,300 - not on health supplies, or checkups, but on food!

"We had various activities, water, items like that, for the different people that were there," Essex said.

The high costs for catering came to light when Councilman Kemp Conrad tried to take an ax to the council's own budget for food.

"In city government we can be leaders and do without something like this," Conrad said. "Bring our own lunch, pack a sandwich, or maybe not have such elaborate meals while people are going without meals right now."

Conrad was right - the meals were elaborate.

During the last fiscal year, the Memphis city council spent $11,000 on taxpayer funded troughs, and bulk of the money was spent on feeding council members and their staff during meetings.

"Are we there to serve or are we there to served?" Conrad asked.

The Mayor's office knew how to serve up a feast as well.  Former Mayor Willie Herenton and his staff spent more than $10,800 on food and catering last year.  The receipts are from high end restaurants like Spindini on South Main, while another was from a welcome reception for the new Superintendent.
A spokesperson for the Mayor Pro Tem Myron Lowery said the mayor's office will be keeping a close eye on any future catering costs...

But Lowery is the one who signed off on the Council's catering bills while he was the chair.

"If we can't make a decision such as this to bring our own lunch and save $10,000, how are we going to make the really tough decisions? How are we going to make the really tough decisions to reform city government?" Conrad asked.

The city's human relations department just got it's food budget cut in half, and Essex says she'll now consider scheduling training activities before or after lunch.

But as for those Council meetings, we're all still paying for them.  On average, that's $3,000 per meal.

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