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Columbia County Observer

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County 5 Box Themselves In: Poor Procurement Practices Have Them Headed to Court

Clerk Susan Weeks (seated, foreground) listens with citizens, Lifeguard and Century Ambulance employees, and The 5, as Lifeguard Ambulance's attorney appeals Purchasing Director Ray Hill's denial of Lifeguard's appeal for alleged bidding improprieties.

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – Years of second rate procurement practices and failure to have its Procurement Directors have any kind of certification has left County residents holding the bag once again for tens and maybe hundreds of thousands in legal fees, as the County's recent Request For Proposals (RFP) for 911 Ambulance Services spiraled into disarray.

Last night, the County 5 were faced with trying to unravel a procurement process, that at least according to Lifeguard Ambulance, was unfair, abused the County's procurement policy, and which by ranking rival ambulance company Century Ambulance number one, was against established law.

The process began on February 24, 2016, when the County received proposals from three ambulance companies: Century Ambulance, Excelsior Ambulance; Lifeguard Ambulance.

On March 2, the Ranking Committee met. Purchasing Director Ray Hill inspected the ranking sheets and called it a tie between Century and Lifeguard. He called for interviews of the two finalists for March 9.

The County never posted the interview session on its calendar. The interviews were set for 10 am. The County calendar showed that the Ranking Committee was meeting on March 9 at 1:30 pm.

The Ranking Committee rated Century number 1.

The following documents are available here:
• Lifeguard Bid Protest
• County Response to Bid Protest (undated)
• Lifeguard Appeal to the County 5

On March 12, Lifeguard notified Mr. Hill that it intended to protest the Ranking Committee's decision.

On March 18, Lifeguard filed a formal protest, which Mr. Hill rejected on March 22.

On March 29, Lifeguard appealed Mr. Hill's rejection to the County 5.

Lifeguard's appeal was heard last night.

County Attorney Foreman Opened the Appeal

County Attorney Joel Foreman opened the Appeal and explained what was going on, as much for The 5 as for the audience. "You are reviewing Mr. Hill's decision with respect to Lifeguard's protest. I want to make sure that is clear."

Lifeguard Speaks

Lifeguard President, Brett Jovanovich

Lifeguard's Attorney, Gary Perko, introduced himself.

Brett Jovanovich, Lifeguard's President, introduced himself.

Mr. Jovanovich said that Lifeguard is in the "top 5% of providers in the state; in the top 1% nationwide." He asked The 5 to consider Lifeguard's appeal and to move forward with negotiations with Lifeguard.

Attorney Perko came back to the microphone to advocate Lifeguard's position. He told The 5, "Your task tonight is essentially twofold: first [to determine] that the County's decision on the contract is reasonable. Secondly, that the process for reaching that decision is fair."

Mr. Perko explained the County's RFP required Century to provide service charges for mileage and no transport. No transport occurs when an ambulance arrives to transport someone and they refuse. He said that Century did not provide that information in their proposal, but instead provided it to County Purchasing Director Hill after the bids were opened. Mr. Perko provided an e-mail which showed Century forwarded those rates two days after the proposals were opened.

Lifeguard objected. Purchasing Director Hill answered the objection saying that it didn't make a difference because the County asked for proposals and not bids.

Mr. Perko pointed out that County's Purchasing Policies & Procedures specifically state that when an RFP is utilized the information must be included.

Highlights and insert added by the Observer

Mr. Perko showed The 5 a slide which further explained the County's Purchasing Policy. The Policy states, "Only bids from responsive bidders are to be considered. A responsible bidder is one who has submitted a bid, which conforms in all material respects to the bid specifications and requirements... Material deviations may not be waived in order to make an award."

Highlights added. A section from the County's Procurement Policy.

Mr. Perko claimed that Century's failing to provide the requested charges went to the substance of the bid and could not be waived.

Mr. Perko continued, "Under long-standing Florida case law... 'A bidder cannot be permitted to change his bid after the bids have been opened, except to cure minor irregularities.' The courts have said, 'That is anti-competitive. It cannot be allowed.'"

Mr. Hill dismissed Lifeguard's objection in a letter in which he stated that the rates Century Ambulance submitted for transports over 14 miles would be lower under Century's proposal.

Mr. Perko pointed out that while that may be so, "the average transport in Columbia County is 9.5 miles."

Mr. Perko said that Lifeguard's proposal, when the average trip length of 9.5 mi is used in the calculations, is $40,000 less than Century's.

Part II: Litigation

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