Feeding the controversy over taxpayer costs for the Michael Jackson memorial, officials disclosed Wednesday the city paid nearly $50,000 for box lunches from an upscale market 80 miles north of Los Angeles for police who worked the event.

An outraged City Controller Wendy Greuel, whose office is responsible for paying city bills, said her staff researched the expense and found that 3,500 box lunches ordered from local Subway shops in Los Angeles would have cost only about $17,500.

"There are many troubling issues that are raised by this expenditure," Greuel said in a letter to Jim Featherstone, general manager of the Emergency Services Department.

"While it appears your office followed the rules for when an emergency is declared, it does not appear your office took steps to find the lowest possible price to provide lunch for the first responders."

She added that in the current economic climate it would have been better to have the meals purchased in the city of Los Angeles. Buying within the city would also give the city local sales tax revenue.

Instead, the lunches were made at Jensen's Finest Foods in Wrightwood, a hamlet tucked high in the San Gabriel Mountain range.

The lunch costs further fueled an already angry debate over why Los Angeles, in the middle of a budget crisis, has had to pay millions of dollars in personnel costs for the private event at Staples Center.

Council members say they have been inundated with irate calls and e-mails over the city costs involved, while the issue has also generated heated debate on local talk radio.

A spokesman for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said late Wednesday the city cost for providing services at the memorial was $1.4 million. Earlier estimates were as high as $5 million.

The city provided security, crowd and traffic control for the memorial service, which began at Forest Lawn Cemetery with a private event and then went on to Staples Center with a crowd of some 17,000.

Councilman Dennis Zine, who has emerged as the leading critic on the memorial costs, called Greuel's disclosures "amazing and incredible."

"First off, why would we use a firm in Wrightwood when it's so far away and we have so many restaurants in Los Angeles?" Zine said. "We just keep getting more and more questions."

But Featherstone said there was a good reason for the decision.

"This is a company that is under contract with the Fire Department and is the only one we know of locally who is able to meet our needs," Featherstone said. "They were able to pull together meals for 3,500 people on 12 hours' notice. That is a box with two meals and all the materials we need."

Featherstone said the emergency packets meet state and federal standards on rations for emergency personnel, including quality, durability and caloric values.

An official at Jensen's said the store, which has provided lunches for Los Angeles before, has a catering operation that often prepares box lunches for police and firemen responding to large events.

For the Jackson event, Jensen's made 3,500 box lunches, averaging to $13.95 per lunch for a total of $48,826. The lunch consisted of two drinks, two sandwiches - a croissant and hoagie - cookies, a granola bar, chips and gum.

It took 10 to 12 hours to put them all together.

"We just have an assembly line that puts it all in," said the Jensen's official, who declined to give her name. "We can get it done on a moment's notice."

An informal survey of catering companies in the Los Angeles basin found several that said they could provide that many box lunches with two sandwiches and drinks on short notice for the same price or perhaps a dollar or two less.

"I would be glad to do that order for Los Angeles, especially in these harsh economic times. I would even give a discount to the city," said Nathaniel Neubauer, owner of Contemporary Catering and Event Planning in West L.A.

Neubauer didn't have a precise estimate for the cost of an order that size, with delivery, but said he might be able to do it for around $12 per box lunch.

The city has put out a plea to Jackson supporters for donations to help cover the costs of the memorial. 

But that effort ran into a technological snag when the city's computer server was overwhelmed with traffic and crashed several times. It was down continuously for 12 hours Tuesday night through Wednesday morning and then sporadically throughout the day, according to the Mayor's Office. Still when the site was up and running, the city collected at least $17,000 in donations.

Zine called for Greuel and City Attorney Carmen Trutanich to conduct a complete review of the decision-making used in planning for the memorial service.

"I want to know who made the decisions to spend all this money," Zine said. "It wasn't Acting Mayor Jan Perry. It wasn't the City Council.

"I want to know who authorized the opening of the EOC (Emergency Operations Center), who authorized shutting down streets, putting out portable toilets. They closed off the freeway. Who authorized that?"

Jackson died on June 25, but no decisions were made on the memorial service until last Thursday, while Villaraigosa was vacationing in South Africa and Perry was acting mayor.

Trutanich has said he is reviewing the protocols used in the planning for the memorial service and hopes to have a report later this week or early next week.

"We are looking at all the options, what protocols are in place and what the city should be doing," Trutanich spokesman Frank Mateljan said. "The concern we have is who is paying the bills for this and for future events."

The LAPD had some 3,500 officers on the initial deployment - the same level as provided Pope John Paul II on his 1987 visit to Los Angeles and during the 2000 Democratic National Convention.

Police Chief Bill Bratton said he was able to release about 1,000 of the officers early because of lighter-than-expected crowds. The action saved some money, although the officers were paid for the time on duty.

Zine has said he believes AEG, owner of Staples and organizer of the memorial, should pay for the city's costs since it stands to benefit the most from any releases on the memorial service.

"If this was a normal event, they would have gone through a process with the city and we would have made arrangements," Zine said. "That didn't happen here."

AEG officials were not available for comment.

rick.orlov@dailynews.com

Staff Writers Greg Wilcox and Talal Ansari contributed to this article.