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Council again spurns cheaper proposal for Gracedale ambulance service

EASTON, Pa. - Northampton County Council delivered its latest decision to stick with Nazareth Ambulance for non-emergency transportation at the Gracedale nursing home with all the subtlety of a screaming siren.

The county administration, the company that runs Gracedale, the Gracedale Advisory Committee and even council's own finance committee all urged acceptance of a proposal from Lifestar Response Corp. that would have cost $225,000 a year for up to three years. That amount was $86,556 per year less for the service than Nazareth Ambulance's offer.

But when it came time for a vote Thursday night, only three of council's nine members -- president John Cusick, Scott Parsons and Robert Werner -- supported the Lifestar proposal, which county officials figured would save Gracedale $340,000 annually when other costs were factored in.

Afterward, Cusick told county executive John Stoffa and members of his administration it was clear that council had no intention of giving a contract to anyone but Nazareth Ambulance. "So try and find a way to work with Nazareth," he said pointedly. "That's the political reality."

Thursday night was the second time Lifestar came up with cheapest proposal, and was spurned by council. On Oct. 4, council rejected an administration recommendation to switch to Lifestar after six years with Nazareth. Lifestar said it could do the job for $315,600 a year for up to three years, $31,000 less than the Nazareth squad's proposal.

A Lifestar representative told after Thursday night's vote that the company may contest council's decision in court. "We'll sit down with our attorneys to see what we have," said Lifestar senior vice president James Dickinson. "Council may have violated its fiduciary duties by not accepting our [low] bid. We won twice. 

Obviously, [council's decision] was very political. We'll do what we have to do to provide services to Gracedale."

Dan Chiavaroli, Nazareth Ambulance's executive director and president of its board of directors, was surprised and relieved by council's decision, which he said would have meant layoffs of 20 to 25 of the squad's 62 full- and part-time workers, had it gone the other way.

"Yes, I was surprised, because Gracedale's administrators were pushing for the savings," Chiavaroli told The members of council, he said, "realized that service is more that just the lowest price, and that's a comfort to [Gracedale] residents."

During the debate over the new contract, which began about six months ago, members of Nazareth Ambulance and their supporters often mentioned the squad's familiarity with Gracedale residents as a major selling point. Thursday night, squad member Melissa Sutliss, told council, "We can go into that facility and talk to [the residents]. ... They know us and we know them."

Council member Peg Ferraro picked up on that point as she explained why she would vote against the Lifestar proposal, saying the Nazareth squad provides Gracedale residents with "a personal touch. ... People need consistency in their lives."

She also quoted country star Alan Jackson's 1999 hit, "Little Man," about small businesses that failed in their struggle to compete with big corporations. She called Lifestar's offer a "lowball response," and wondered why council was thinking of severing ties with "the little guy whose given us nothing to complain about."

Council members Barbara Thierry and Ken Kraft said they were not persuaded by Lifestar's numbers.

"It's obvious Lifestar delivers the best bang for the buck," said Thierry. "But what about three years from now, when there's no Nazareth Ambulance?"

Kraft said, "Lifestar won't go out of business if they don't get the contract. And I can't wrap my head around how they can do it so cheap." Kraft pointed out he ran for council promising to help open companies and create jobs, "so I cannot support a proposal that would be closing a company and losing jobs."

Werner said he would support the Lifestar offer because "we're talking about a lot of money in savings. I know this is not pleasant ... but the wrong decision could cost us a lot of money by the end of the year."

He said Premier Healthcare Resources, the company hired by council in September 2011 to run Gracedale, put the nursing home back on its feet, and its support for the Lifestar proposal is another way to "improve upon the system Gracedale has. "I don't think Nazareth Ambulance will go out of business, because they still have a 911 service," he added.

Michelle Seidel, Lifestar's vice president and general manager for Pennsylvania, tried to refute some of the claims made against her company.

She said Lifestar operates locally in Bethlehem and Stroudsburg as well as in seven other states.

She pointed out that 30 of the 100 employed by Lifestar's Bethlehem operation live in the city; that "90 percent of the staff" lives in the Lehigh Valley, and that Lifestar pays $200,000 a month in salaries.

She noted that Lifestar uses local vendors for tires, auto parts and $120,000 worth of gas each month.

"We live here, we raise our families here, we're here to stay," she said.

The Nazareth squad has been working under a two-year contract that expired last Oct. 31. Thierry recommended the administration move quickly to get a new deal with Nazareth under the terms the squad has offered. "The longer you wait, the longer will be paying the higher price," she said.

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