Ambulance bidding raises questions
As a coalition of fire departments begins ambulance service on the South Shore, questions remain about the fairness of the bidding process.
The California Tahoe Emergency Services Operations Authority was ranked highest by a selection committee that considered financial resources, equipment, staffing and other issues.
But two companies on the losing end of that process say Cal Tahoe should have been disqualified, primarily because it failed to meet strict financial requirements set down by El Dorado County.
Lake Tahoe Ambulance and Sierra Emergency Medical Services Alliance both suggested possible legal action in June letters to the county counsel’s office.
“Because of the extent and magnitude of the problems, no objective person could deem the process followed by the county to be legitimate,” wrote attorney Theodore Stream of Riverside, representing Lake Tahoe Ambulance.
“(Cal Tahoe) clearly failed to establish minimum financial credentials … and its proposal should have been scored a ‘0’ and disqualified,” Reno attorney Matthew Addison wrote on behalf of SEMSA, the California offshoot of Reno-based Regional Emergency Medical Services Authority.
Despite the stern words, spokesmen for both companies said Thursday that no lawsuits are planned against the county. However, the state agency that oversees ambulance services is examining how Cal Tahoe was selected.
“We’re looking into the issue to see if there is any impropriety of the handling of the (patient) transportation issue in El Dorado County’s EMS plan,” said Shirley Tsagris, spokeswoman for the California Emergency Medical Services Authority.
Tsagris said the agency was acting in the wake of two complaints, but she had no details on what actions, if any, might result from the inquiry or when it might be complete.
County officials said they were satisfied with Cal Tahoe’s credentials after submitting the agency to a rigorous review process.
Gayle Erbe-Hamlin, public health director, said the county worked hard to ensure the selection process was fair.
“It’s been a very long, complex process,” she said. “The past two months have been very intensive negotiations” to ensure Cal Tahoe will deliver what it promised.
County Counsel Louis Green said he was aware of the complaints from SEMSA and Lake Tahoe Ambulance.
“Obviously we reviewed that at some length and disagree with those complaints,” Green said.
Brian Schafer, the Lake Valley fire chief who helped spearhead Cal Tahoe, said the review committee included experts from around the nation. Cal Tahoe won the bid because it had a superior proposal, he said.
“Saying anything other than it was a level playing field and fair would be inaccurate,” Schafer said.
The point has become moot for Lake Tahoe Ambulance, which will shut down after losing its county contract. General Manager Jeff Bates admits the company missed the deadline to submit its proposal – by 10 minutes – but he said Cal Tahoe’s proposal was flawed and also should have been rejected.
“As a citizen of this community, I’m more concerned about the process than anything, because the process wasn’t fair,” Bates said.
Asked why the company wasn’t pressing the point in court, he said, “We basically sat there and said, ‘You can’t fight city hall.'”
Klark Staffan, vice president of SEMSA, said Cal Tahoe claimed to have strong commitments from its member agencies – the city of South Lake Tahoe, the North Tahoe Fire Protection District and the Lake Valley Fire Protection District.
But Staffan pointed out that Cal Tahoe is a separate financial entity, which he said failed to prove sufficient access to start-up capital and financial reserves.
“In order for a competitive bid process to be valid, the people who write an RFP (request for contract proposals) cannot pick and choose which portions of the document they’re going to enforce,” Staffan said.
In fact, the last pieces of Cal Tahoe’s financial puzzle didn’t fall into place until Thursday, when the county signed off on a five-year contract worth $1.13 million annually. The contract includes $189,200 for start-up costs.
The city posted Cal Tahoe’s performance bond, while Lake Valley has extended a $400,000 line of credit to be repaid with interest within one year.
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