AMR plans to challenge loss of Calif. ambulance contract in court
Sonoma Life Support claims a review committee member had ties to a nonprofit that received $10K from a rival ambulance company
By Martin Espinoza
The Press Democrat
SONOMA COUNTY, Calif. — Health officials have recommended awarding the Sonoma County Fire District an exclusive and lucrative ambulance contract that had previously been held for 30 years by American Medical Response, a private ambulance company.
AMR, locally known as Sonoma Life Support, said it plans to challenge the decision in court. AMR has issued a formal protest alleging that the bidding process was tainted by a conflict of interest and skewed in favor of the fire district.
"AMR is confident in our legal position on this issue, and we fully intend to challenge this decision in court," AMR spokesman Jason Sorrick told The Press Democrat.
On April 24, the county released its scores for the bids AMR and the fire district submitted for the exclusive ambulance contract, which covers a geographical area that includes Santa Rosa, Sebastopol, Rohnert Park, Cotati, and the surrounding unincorporated areas.
The fire district received a higher score because its proposed base rate of $3,100 was lower than AMR's proposed base rate of $3,900. AMR was also dinged for not providing some audited financial reports, county officials said.
Days after the county announced its intent to award the contract to the fire district, AMR filed a formal protest letter. In the letter, AMR claims that Amy Gnojek, one of the people on the bid review committee, had ties to a nonprofit that received a $10,000 donation from a rival ambulance company that is partnering with the fire district.
County officials last week rejected AMR's protest.
"The County has determined that AMR did not demonstrate any violations of the competitive process," the county stated in a news release announcing the award of the contract to the fire district.
"In particular, the County found no evidence that any members of the Proposal Review Committee had a conflict of interest that would prevent them from serving as an unbiased member of the committee," the statement read.
In a May 26 letter to AMR's attorneys, which represents the county's formal response to the ambulance company's protest, Johannes Hoevertsz, director of Sonoma County Public Infrastructure, said Gnojek did not have a conflict of interest because she had no "financial interest" in the county's ambulance contract.
The county also dismissed AMR's claims that some of the fire district's proposed fees constituted unlawful taxes and that the fire district engaged in inappropriate communications prohibited by the terms of the competitive process.
The right to operate ambulance and EMS dispatch services in central Sonoma County is a high-stakes battle, with annual revenues projected at between roughly $25 million for AMR and $30 million for the fire district, according to their bid proposals.
AMR, the country's largest ambulance operator, says it's made huge investments in the county's EMS system. Meanwhile, the Sonoma County Fire District says it can provide better service for less. The district was formed in 2019 and has grown rapidly since through a series of consolidations. It now covers Windsor, Rincon Valley, Bennett Valley, Bodega Bay, Guerneville and Forestville.
Sonoma County Fire District Chief Mark Heine said Friday in an email that the district is "honored" to have been chosen to take over the exclusive contract.
"We look forward to providing an exceptional level of emergency ambulance service with honesty, integrity, and respect for those we will serve," he said.
Officials said the county's recommendation to grant the contract to the fire district will go before the Board of Supervisors at a future meeting for final approval. The fire district is expected to begin providing ambulance services starting on Jan. 16, 2024.