Vending contracts in Mohave County’s crosshairs

March 19, 2019 GMT

A moldy burrito has led Mohave County to again challenge a controversial state program that awards government vending contracts to blind people.

Arizona’s Business Enterprise Program is intended to provide business opportunities for blind people, who had few job prospects when the law was enacted more than 80 years ago.

The problem with the law, as Mohave County officials see it, is that the program only employs three people with vision loss.

“The big question is who truly runs these businesses that cost over $7 million in taxpayer money every year?” asks Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Hildy Angius in a new letter sent to Arizona State Senate President Karen Fann.

A 2014 report shows that the program employs 249 people, with three people reporting a visual disability, 10 people with some other kind of disability, and 236 people with no disabilities.

County supervisors in 2015 sent a letter to Gov. Doug Ducey questioning the state law that requires it to use a business owned by a blind operator to service its 31 vending machines in 13 county buildings.

The complaint was followed with a public letter from the then-director of Arizona’s Department of Economic Security, who defended the state’s Business Enterprise Program as a “just, welcomed and deeply appreciated opportunity for individuals who confront and live with a disability on a daily basis.”

County supervisors argued that the program doesn’t allow them to seek out better offers for vending services, and it doesn’t benefit blind people as much as it claims. Despite their objections, supervisors agreed to renew the program in 2015. It is set to expire in 2030.

With the contract renewed, the issue seemed to be settled. But a few weeks ago, a Mohave County employee found a moldy frozen burrito in a vending machine located in the county administration building in Kingman.

“Thankfully, this employee felt something was wrong before they took a bite, or the situation could have easily escalated,” Angius wrote in her letter.

Angius says the vendor responded quickly when they were alerted to the problem, but she says it’s a problem that didn’t need to occur in the first place. Mohave County’s environmental health division normally inspects vending machines throughout the county, but under the intergovernmental agreement, Mohave County has no authority over the vending machines in the program, Angius said.

Additionally, county taxpayers are responsible for paying for the water, housing and electricity required to operate the machines, but the county is not allowed to recoup costs for the service.

In her letter, Angius recommends several changes to the state’s vendor program, including allowing oversight by local health departments and allowing audits of the program to occur.

“Reports from the Department of Education show the state of Arizona is making a roughly $2 million profit off this program,” Angius wrote. “If there is money left over, it should go to local governments to help offset the cost of maintaining the services.”

Supervisors are set to discuss the letter and the contract during today’s 9:30 a.m. meeting.