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Published: Wednesday, 4/20/2005

Agency questions turnpike choice of plaza vendors

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The Ohio Turnpike plans to seek an opinion from Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro's office about whether an agency that arranges for blind people to provide vending and food services in state buildings should have gotten the first crack at vending management at two service plazas in Wood County.

William Casto, director of the Ohio Bureau of Services for the Visually Impaired, said he first became aware in February of the turnpike's plans to hire a private company to manage vending at the Wyandot and Blue Heron plazas. The two agencies exchanged letters thereafter. But on Monday, the turnpike commission approved hiring AVI Food Systems Inc. of Warren, Ohio, to be the plazas' vending manager.

Under a 1976 state law, Mr. Casto's bureau has preference to manage cafeterias, snack counters, and vending machines in Ohio government buildings. It, in turn, arranges for legally blind people who are trained and licensed to run such facilities to do so as independent entrepreneurs, Mr. Casto said.

Lauren Dehrmann, a turnpike spokesman, said yesterday that the turnpike has always hired private firms to provide food and vending services at its service plazas.

Turnpike staff now are assembling documents to send to Mr. Petro's office to seek a formal opinion, she said.

Award of the vending contract is being delayed pending a response, Ms. Dehrmann said, for "as long as we can" without affecting the availability of vending when the two rebuilt plazas reopen late next month.

Mr. Casto said his agency is delaying possible submission of a letter requesting administrative review of the vending contract pending the attorney general's response.

During an April 8 meeting, he said, bureau representatives were told they had not met a turnpike deadline for submitting a bid. But Mr. Casto said the deadline did not apply because the bureau has the right of first refusal.

When the turnpike commission first developed its program to replace its service plazas during the mid-1990s, toll-road officials announced plans to contract with a single firm at each plaza to manage all concessions, including the food courts, filling stations, gift shops, and vending machines.

Mr. Casto said his agency met with the turnpike at the time and determined that managing such extensive operations would go beyond the training that bureau clients receive.

But with the toll road now breaking down service plaza concessions into smaller chunks, he said, they may well be within bureau clients' management capabilities.

While the AVI contract would provide the turnpike with 41.6 percent of the gross revenue from food and beverage vending, and 50 percent of the gross from laundry vending, Mr. Casto said his bureau's clients are not legally obligated to provide any share of their revenue to their host facilities. The few that do so generally pay no more than 10 percent, he said.

Contact David Patch at:

dpatch@theblade.com

or 419-724-6094.



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