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County Commission opts to bid ambulance service

Despite a request from a representative of MedicOne to renew the county’s contract with the ambulance service provider, the Unicoi County Commission opted to bid out the contract during its meeting on Monday, Jan. 26, at the courthouse.
During the time for citizens’ comments at the start of the regular meeting, Daryl Gibson, vice-president of business development for MedicOne, asked the commission to consider approving the renewal of the county as is, then the two parties could make changes to the contract, such as lowering the $180,000 subsidy the county has paid annually to MedicOne, later.
“Can we just go ahead and pass it right now as it is and be done with it?,” Gibson asked. “… Resign the contract as it is and then we’ll talk afterwards.”
During this discussion county attorney Doug Shults said the county could renew the contract as is without putting it out for bid.
“The contract provides for a renewal for a period of time,” Shults added. “You can renew it and you also have the right to grant franchises without bids. When you start changing the terms of the contract you have to go through the bid process. You can’t renew it with a side deal. You cannot be doing something on the side. Everything has to be honest and up front.”
Shults went on to say that the county and MedicOne can negotiate after the contract has been signed. Commissioners John Mosley and Loren Thomas both agreed with this opinion.
“You’ve got to be cautious,” Shults also told the commission. “If you’re doing this to avoid the competitive bid process, a competitor can say you’ve just done this with the intent to avoid the competitive bid. The general idea is you can renew the contract, but you can’t sit there and wink at each other and say you’re going to renew the contract then make changes later.
“You’re supposed to do a competitive bid. The idea is we just don’t award it to our friends, our neighbors or even to people who have done exceptional jobs – everybody gets a crack at it.”
Shults then reminded the commission that should they choose to enter the bid process, they are not required to choose the lowest bid. They can choose the bid they feel is the “best” bid.
Commissioner Glenn White then made a motion to renew the contract with MedicOne; however, because the meeting was still on the citizen’s comments agenda item and had not yet reached the item on the agenda regarding the ambulance service, the motion was not considered.
The commission took up the discussion whether to bid or not again at the end of the meeting. At the start of this discussion, Commissioner Kenneth Garland asked what the Commission’s Ambulance Service Committee had recommended regarding bidding the ambulance service contract. Commissioner Jason Harris, who chairs the ambulance committee, told Garland the committee had met on both Jan. 15 and Jan. 22. During the Jan. 22 meeting, Shults advised the committee that if changes were to be made to the contract it should be let out for bid.
“So, the committee recommended putting the ambulance service back out for bid,” Harris added.
He then made a motion to put the ambulance service out for bid. This was seconded by Garland.
White then asked if the commission could first vote on renewing the contract with MedicOne as requested by Gibson.
“We already have a motion,” said Commission Chairwoman Marie Rice.
White then said he felt that because MedicOne had presented their position at both the Jan. 15 and Jan. 22 meetings, putting the contract out for bid is not fair to MedicOne because competitors know what the company has offered.
“In my opinion, if they want to be a vested part of the community … plus, they have stated in a public forum that they are going to build a facility, which we really need, I just think it would be best for the taxpayers to go with what we’ve got,” White added.
Commissioner Walter Garland responded to White by saying that the commission was not required to choose the lowest bid. Harris then reminded the panel that MedicOne representatives have said they would not bid on the contract.
“If you do decide to put it out for bid, we will help you make the transition, but we will not be bidding,” Gibson said during the Jan. 22 meeting.
During that meeting Harris asked Gibson why the company would not bid.
“You have made it known that MedicOne is not what you’re looking for,” Gibson said. “If you go out for bid you’re saying you’re not completely satisfied with what you have … It’s not being stubborn. … We are going to be responsible stewards and help you through your transition.”
Thomas, whose wife works for MedicOne, told the commission that they were not required to go with the recommendation of the ambulance committee.
White asked a second time for the commission to consider approving the contract as is before considering the motion made my Harris and seconded by Kenneth Garland. This would have required Harris to rescind his motion.
“Let’s vote on what the committee recommended, then if it fails we’ll vote on renewing the contract as is,” Harris responded.
Prior to the vote, Rice allowed Dan Wheeley, director of Washington County’s EMA, to address the commission.
“MedicOne is a top-notch service,” Wheeley said. “They are providing excellent service to this county. We consider them a partner. … Their equipment is top-notch.”
Prior to the vote, Thomas said he felt Harris’ committee had been unfair.
“I feel your committee has handled this very unfairly,” Thomas said to Harris. “It’s nothing personal against you, but this whole deal, with negotiations up front and making (MedicOne) show their cards and then deciding halfway through the ball game that you’ve got to put it out for bid.”
Harris responded by saying that the commission did not have to go with the lowest bid.
“If they bid, whatever they bid, if it’s higher … they’ve actually got a better thing going because they’re already here,” Harris responded. “They’ve done a good job.”
Thomas then said he believed the community supports MedicOne.
“Our job is to represent the community,” Thomas said. “I think the community has come out tonight and supported MedicOne.”
Also prior to the vote, Gibson told the commission that attorneys for MedicOne have requested Shults provide them all information from Jan. 1 to the present. Part of the information requested is information about every ambulance service provider the county has met with.
Voting to put the ambulance service contract out for bid were Marie Rice, Walter Garland, Jason Harris, Kenneth Garland and Gene Wilson. Voting not to put the contract out for bid were Loren Thomas, John Mosley and Glenn White. Bridget Peters was absent from the meeting.
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Several citizens spoke in favor of MedicOne at the start of Monday’s meeting, including registered nurse Tia Hensley, who became very emotional while addressing the commission.
“… (MedicOne’s) equipment is exceptional and just getting better,” Hensley said.
Also supporting MedicOne was Craig Master’s, administrative assistant at the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department.
“Had it not been for their availability, their urgency and the care that they gave my wife, I’m sure that she wouldn’t be here today,” Masters said. “I’ve observed with my own eyes the service that other ambulance services have given, and I’ll put MedicOne up against any of them. It would be a great loss to this county and the taxpayers of this county to have something happen to this ambulance service.”
During the Jan. 22 meeting, Debbie Bennett, wife of the late Dwight Bennett, did not sing MedicOne’s praises.
She told the committee that when her husband suffered a heart attack in November, it took a MedicOne ambulance 40 minutes to arrive at their home. Upon their arrival, the employees were “rude,” Bennett also said. She also said the way the situation was handled was “fatal.”
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The ambulance committee is scheduled to meet at the Unicoi County Courthouse on Wednesday, Jan. 28, at 4 p.m. and on Monday, Feb. 2, at 3 p.m. Developing request for proposal is the topic of these meetings.