Napa County Uses Singer Associates Public Relations to Help Communicate Ambulance Selection

James Noonan – Napa County Register, Saturday, October 1, 2011

The search for Napa’s next ambulance provider — a bumpy, publicly criticized process — came at a cost of nearly $300,000 to taxpayers.

In all, the cost of drafting two requests for proposals, evaluating bids twice and sustaining a lengthy protest period during the most recent bid process amounted to $299,386, according to a series of public records act requests filed over the past two months.

The bulk of the cost — $174,686 — was paid to Fitch and Associates, a Missouri-based consulting firm specializing in emergency medical services and ambulance contracts, county records show.

Napa County first contracted with Fitch back in April of 2009 in order to “assist the county in developing and conducting a competitive process” for selecting the next ambulance provider, according to the terms of the original agreement.

Initially, the maximum payment for Fitch’s services was supposed to be capped at $134,320, but the contract was amended twice, with the county raising the maximum amount each time.

The contract was first amended in November 2009 when the county was still drafting its first RFP, bumping the new maximum payment to $148,820.

Then, in March 2011, roughly six months after the Board of Supervisors voted to reject the first set of bids and begin the process from scratch, the contract was amended a second time, raising the maximum payment to $192,460.

Acknowledging that Fitch’s services accounted for the bulk of the process’ cost, Supervisor Bill Dodd said that the firm’s involvement was integral to the process.

“I know people get frustrated when we pay this type of money to consultants, but we don’t have the expertise on board to go through one of these RFPs,” he said.

The state mandates that counties put ambulance contracts out to bid periodically. State regulations regarding emergency medical services and awarding ambulance contracts can change rapidly, Dodd said, and having a firm like Fitch helps counties navigate the legal process.

In addition to the Fitch contracts, the county also shelled out another $10,000 to Singer Associates, a San Francisco-based public relations firm, that was hired to assist the county with public relations and communications following the announcement this summer that American Medical Response was tentatively receiving the county’s recommendation.

Singer’s contract was signed on Aug. 1 and was set to expire after one month, records show.

The hiring of Frank DeMarco, a third-part hearing officer asked to weigh in on protests from both Medic and Piner’s Ambulance, also added to overall costs.

DeMarco’s contract with the county, officially between Napa County and DeMarco’s firm, Hanson Bridgett LLP, set a maximum payment amount of $15,000.

According to the most recent set of invoices, DeMarco had billed the county for $3,300 based on services rendered in the month of July.

County officials note that an invoice for the month of August, when DeMarco held the hearing with the unsuccessful bidders and delivered his decision, had yet to be received, meaning the overall cost of the process will rise.

DeMarco’s decision was heavily criticized by both Piner’s and Medic, who suggested that he had simply signed off on the county’s earlier decision without weighing the merits of the protests.

Piner’s also raised issue with the fact that DeMarco was receiving payment from the county during the protest hearing, suggesting the agreement constituted a conflict of interest.

The final major cost was the large amount of staff time. In all, 4,456 hours of staff time were dedicated to the selection of Napa’s next ambulance provider, with four departments sharing the load, records show.

According to Napa County Counsel’s office, Napa’s Emergency Medical Services Agency, a subdivision of Health and Human Services, dedicated 3,401 hours to the ambulance selection process. General health and human services staff spent 335 hours, while the county executive office and office of county counsel spent 63 hours and 657 hours, respectively.

Assuming that the average employee in these departments assigned to the ambulance selection process earns an annual salary of $52,000 — or $25 per hour — the total cost of staff time amounts to $111,400.

With various department heads earning six-figure salaries, the assumption of $52,000 may be a conservative estimate, meaning costs associated with staff time may well have been higher.

Throughout the selection process, county staff was repeatedly criticized by both unsuccessful bidders and members of the public who claimed that the decision was made carelessly or without due diligence.

Seeing the overall hour count should quell such allegation, officials said.

“This went on for over a year. At the end of the day there was a lot of time and effort spent,” Dodd said. “We certainly knew this would be an expensive endeavor, but going at it a second time was something that was important to the community.”

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