Supervisors award controversial ambulance contract to Sonoma County Fire District, prompting threats of lawsuit
The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously agreed to award its exclusive ambulance contract to Sonoma County Fire District, all but ending American Medical Response’s 30-year reign in the county.
AMR, known locally as Sonoma Life Support, has alleged that the bidding process was tainted by conflict of interest and favoritism toward the fast growing and ambitious fire district, and said it would challenge the decision.
“The county has failed to hold a fair (bidding) process as required by law, and we’ll be taking this matter to court,“ said Nicole Henricksen, AMR’s vice president of operations.
The unanimous decision is essentially an endorsement of the bidding review process carried out by the county’s Department of Health Services. The process included an independent review committee that scored and ranked the proposals by AMR and the fire district, which were the only companies to submit bids.
On Tuesday, county health services officials said AMR scored lower than the district in two categories. AMR’s proposed base rate for ambulance service was $3,900 while the district proposed $3,100. In addition, AMR failed to submit several years of financial statements.
Health Services Director Tina Rivera said the fire district also “provided better answers during the proposal presentations.” The county issued a request for proposals in early November 2022.
On April 24, Rivera’s office announced that the fire district had the higher scoring proposal. Four days later, AMR submitted a formal protest letter claiming that Amy Gnojek, one of the people on the bid review committee, had ties to a nonprofit that received a $10,000 donation from the fire district’s bid partner Medic Ambulance Service.
AMR also pointed out that the nonprofit Gnojek is affiliated with, Women in Emergency Services, or WiES, is mentioned in the fire district’s bid proposal as a possible training partner should the district win the contract.
Gnojek and the fire district rejected claims of conflict of interest. Gnojek previously told The Press Democrat she was merely an unpaid volunteer adviser to WiES and has no financial interest in the organization.
She also rejected any suggestion that the timing of the donation was aimed at influencing her work on the committee.
Three decades of dominance
The stakes are extremely high in the battle to control the county’s only exclusive ambulance contract, which covers a large and lucrative geographical area that includes Santa Rosa, Sebastopol, Rohnert Park, Cotati and the surrounding unincorporated areas. The area includes about 250,000 residents, roughly half of the county’s population.
Annual revenues were projected at between $25 million for AMR and $30 million for the fire district, according to their bid proposals.
During Tuesday’s supervisors meeting, AMR employees pleaded with county supervisors to restart the bidding process. One of the main concerns by AMR staff was fear that wages and benefits will be lower under the fire district.
“The chief concerns with the workforce are the reduction in wages, (paid time off), benefits, holiday pay … and retirement benefits,” said Hannah Thompson, an AMR paramedic. “This does not meet the criteria set forth in the (request for proposals) to meet or exceed our existing standards.”
Thompson also raised questions about the bidding process, which she said lacked “honesty and integrity.”
County officials on Tuesday said the claims of conflict of interest were thoroughly investigated and had no merit. For most of the meeting, AMR’s specific protests were only vaguely alluded to by county officials and supervisors until Board Chair Chris Coursey requested more details.
After the vote, Nathan Duvardo, a 17-year paramedic in Sonoma County and chief steward for United EMS Workers — AFSCME Local 4911, which represents AMR’s EMS workers, said awarding the contract to the Fire District would be a financial blow to the local’s members.
“I’m profoundly disappointed at the Board of Supervisors,” Duvardo said. “Their health department represented one side of the story … There were glaring inaccuracies in their presentation. It was evident that it slanted the board of supervisors.”
Duvardo pointed out that only Coursey asked for further details about AMR’s protest and objections.
The vote Tuesday authorizes Rivera and her staff to begin detailed negotiations for a final contract with the fire district. Rivera said she is bound by law to negotiate a good contract for workers.
“We hear the concerns that were made by the union,” Rivera said. “It's clear that we need to continue to discuss some things with the union. The EMS Act requires us to ensure that the contract provides the workforce with the same wages (and benefits) or better.”
The fire district is scheduled to take over the exclusive, five-year contract on Jan. 15, 2024, when the current contract with AMR expires.
Duvardo said he’s seen the district’s latest proposal for wages and benefits, adding that it still falls short of the existing contract with AMR. He said the proposed wages are equivalent to losing at least a one-year cost of living adjustment, or COLA.
“Under their contract, I will be making what I was making last year,” Duvardo said. “As you progress through your years of service, you will always be a year behind.”
Duvardo said the employer health care contribution under the fire district’s latest wage proposal was also less.
Following the board vote, Sonoma County Fire District Chief Mark Heine extended an invitation to AMR employees to join his ranks through the district’s partnership with Medic Ambulance Service.
“I hold all the existing EMTs and paramedics that work for AMR in the highest esteem, they provide excellent patient care, it’s never been about that,” Heine said. “I’m hoping that all come join our team and continue to serve in Sonoma County.”
Heine said he was certain there will be more buy-in on the part of AMR staff once they examine more closely the district’s proposed wages and benefits. The latest proposal was submitted to the county on Monday.
Mike Stornetta, a captain with the fire district and president of the Professional Firefighters of Sonoma County, Local 1401, said during the meeting that Local 1401 looks forward to representing AMR’s current workforce.
“We're here to welcome all of them with open arms, that they will all be eligible for employment,” Stornetta said.
But Duvardo said even if the fire district ends up with the contract, it has not yet been determined which union will represent existing workers.
“Our union, United EMS, has not conceded representation authority over the incumbent workforce,” Duvardo said.
You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @pressreno.