Credit: Nick Welsh

The high-stakes showdown over Santa Barbara County’s exclusive, multimillion-dollar ambulance contract shows no sign of letting up with the new special district representing all the county’s fire districts having just filed yet another administrative appeal challenging a special panel’s recommendations that the contract be awarded to American Medical Response (AMR), the company that’s held the franchise for the past 27 years.

This marks the second protest filed by the county’s collective fire agencies since November 4, when the special panel created to evaluate the two competing bids awarded AMR a score 317 points higher than the fire district. The first protest went to the county’s procurement officer, who on December 14 concluded that none of the objections raised by the fire district had merit.

The Fire District is now petitioning the county to appoint an ad hoc Protest Review Committee to review its allegations that the process to evaluate the competing bids was fatally flawed. In its second appeal petition, County Fire Chief Mark Hartwig objected, “The denial was arbitrary, capricious, entirely lacking in evidentiary/factual support.”

Assuming this petition is accepted, a new commission is empaneled, and arguments made, Hartwig said, he expects the process to run its course sometime by mid-January.

This marks the first time in the county’s history that the contract for ambulance and EMR services has ever been put out to bid. For more than 10 years, the leadership of local fire agencies and their unions have been working together to make this happen. They’ve insisted they can provide faster, better service with lower response times for less cost than AMR has and that they would reinvest any savings back into the system by creating new and expanded programs.

Most notable among these programs, they say, is a co-response function that pairs together paramedics and mental-health caseworkers to respond to those experiencing chronic — but less-acute — mental-health challenges.

All this has been vehemently opposed by AMR and officials with the county Public Health Department — who oversee the contract — who have argued that the bidding process is inherently disruptive. They say similar efforts elsewhere in the state have borne mixed results at best. If the existing system’s not broke, they have argued, don’t fix it.

Hartwig and the unified fire agencies — who enjoy unanimous backing from the respective city councils and city managers — have argued that the system is, in fact, broke. They have objected in their protests — among other things — that AMR failed to disclose that it had serious contract compliance issues in both Sonoma and Santa Clara counties. This information, they contended, should have been given weight by the five-member panel that initially reviewed the contract bids.

The county’s procurement officer Phung Loman dismissed this objection, explaining, “Nothing in the RFP [Request for Proposals] required proposers to disclose non-compliance issues.”

In a subsequent interview, Chief Hartwig replied that AMR volunteered the fact they had contracts in Sonoma and Santa Clara counties in their bid documents, buttressing the point that the company was very large, very established, and firing on all cylinders. If AMR felt this information was relevant enough to raise in the first place, Hartwig argued, then certainly their rebuttal information was relevant too.

Given the high stakes involved — the face value of the 10-year contract is worth anywhere between $200 million and $350 million in billable rides. Only a small fraction of these, however, get paid.  

Hartwig said he expects the administrative appeals process to play out by sometime this January. He expressed bewilderment at what the actual process would be; he didn’t know, for example, who would serve on the appeals panel, who would appoint them, and the extent to which any of the proceeding would be open to the public. He did say that oral arguments would be presented, if the petition were to be accepted.

Because of the potential that outside political influences might be brought to bear, the county designed a process specifically to shield the county supervisors — and high-ranking county administrators — from any direct or indirect role in the decision-making process.

Whichever way the appeals panel eventually rules, it’s highly unlikely that will resolve the issues swirling around the contract bidding process. Given the players involved and the importance of the contract, it’s probable in the extreme that litigation will ensue.

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