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Tacoma: Council’s split-vote on ambulance contract means bid do-over

Post by Lewis Kamb / The News Tribune on Oct. 20, 2010 at 12:04 pm |
October 21, 2010 2:44 pm

After three public hearings over a controversial contract award — one of which ended in a deadlocked vote — the Tacoma City Council last night decided on a split-vote to throw out a bid recommendation to award the city’s ambulance services to a new vendor.

The council’s vote now means the contract will be re-bid.

A five-member city advisory panel consisting of fire personnel and others had recommended American Medical Response Ambulance Service of Greenwood Village, Colo., for the six-year contract, expected to raise the winning vendor more than $3 million, depending on billable services (costs are passed along to ambulance clients, not the city).

By a mere 17 points out of a possible 1000, AMR had edged out Everett-based Rural-Metro of Greater Seattle to win the panel’s recommendation. Rural Metro has provided ambulance services for the Tacoma Fire Department for the past six years.

The bid recommendation led Rural Metro to formally appeal, with the company’s lawyers contending that the bid process was confusing. In particular, they contended that part of the scoring that was based on repayment to the city for its dispatch services – the only score where AMR beat out Rural Metro — were calculated differently by each bidder because of unclear language in the city’s Request For Proposals.

AMR contended that all bidders had equal opportunity to ask questions to clarify any issues in the RFP, and as the incumbent contractor, Rural Metro should have known how to properly contract such repayment services for that part of the contract.

Councilman Ryan Mello, who missed a previous vote on the issue earlier this month that ended in a tie, cast the deciding vote Tuesday night. He and the other four council members who voted to rebid the contract agreed with Rural Metro that the bidding process was unclear.

“It should be an incredibly clear process,” Mello said when explaining his vote. “…I’m just frustrated by the lack of transparency.”

Mello added he hoped the vote would be a “signal to the fire department” that “more transparency and less smoke signals” are needed in its bidding processes.

Joining Mello in favor of a rebid were Council members David Boe, Joe Lonergan, Victoria Woodards and Jake Fey. Council members Marty Campbell, Spiro Manthou, Lauren Walker and Mayor Marilyn Strickland voted against rebidding the contract.

Re-bidding doesn’t necessarily mean AMR will not end up winning the contract in the end.

Officials for AMR, which holds similar private ambulance contracts nationwide and has a local office, have said the company would hire some 125 local emergency management technicians should it end up winning the Tacoma contract.

Dozens of locally-based EMTs who now work for Rural Metro have attended the hearings the past few weeks, raising concerns about the prospective changes should AMR beat out their current employer.

Among them last night was EMT Theresa Peery, who said both she and her husband have worked for Rural Metro for years. Peery told the council that, if AMR ultimately won the bid and re-hired them, the couple would likely lose some $10,000 in pay and be unable to cover their mortgage.

“It’s unfair for us to go home and tell our kids… that we lost our jobs and our house,” said Peery, who claimed the couple’s loss of job seniority at Rural Metro would cause such a big pay reduction at AMR. “They can’t pay us our same wages. They just can’t.”

An AMR official told the council members last night that the company proposed “lower rates, more ambulances and competitive wages” as part of its bid package.

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