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Published: Tuesday, 3/6/2007

Strickland freezes some food expenses for state agencies

ASSOCIATED PRESS

COLUMBUS Gov. Ted Strickland told all state agencies today to stop ordering coffee, lunch and other meals while his office reviews nearly $4 million in food-related expenses in the past two years.

His directive puts a freeze on breakfast trays and other food provided at meetings and conferences held for official state business, Strickland spokesman Keith Dailey said.

The move was prompted by a Senate finance committee report Monday showing that the Ohio Board of Regents, the agency that oversees higher education policy, spent $113,000 on catering services and restaurant tabs since 2005, including several charges at high-end restaurants in Columbus, Dailey said.

Regents spokesman Jamie Abel didn t dispute the figure but said it has to be put into context.

Professors and university officials drive to Columbus throughout the year from all over Ohio to attend meetings on academic programs, Abel said. The meetings last all day, and most of the meals consist of soup, salad or boxed lunches costing an average of $10 apiece.

Abel said only a few working meetings have been held at more-expensive restaurants for the Board of Regents nine members, who are business leaders and other executives appointed by the governor who receive no compensation.

These are restaurants that have large meeting rooms, separate from the general hustle and bustle of dining rooms, and are in business to host these kinds of events, Abel said.

State agencies hosting meetings and seminars had 5,430 food-related expenses over the past 19 months, totaling $3.9 million, according to data released by Strickland s office.

The Ohio Department of Education topped the list with $358,000 in expenses, followed by the Ohio Department of Health with $357,000 and the Ohio Department of Transportation with $326,000, according to the governor s office.

The data did not indicate whether all the expenses were paid for with state money or whether federal dollars were used.

Education Department spokesman J.C. Benton said the agency will comply with Strickland s order. The department hosts hundreds of meetings a year to keep Ohio s 120,000 teachers and 613 school districts up to date on important issues, including changes in federal and state law, he said.

In many cases, the meetings are paid for with federal money or attendees are charged a registration fee to cover the costs, Benton said.

Strickland, a Democrat, is drafting his first two-year budget proposal, which is scheduled to be released March 15.

The state spends about $25 billion a year, and Strickland has predicted an extremely tight first budget with little or no increases for agencies that pay for schools, provide health care for the poor and help house seniors.

Read more in later editions of The Blade and toledoblade.com



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