Lehigh Valley

County executive still deciding whether to 'pick a fight' with council over Gracedale ambulance service

EASTON, Pa. - Northampton County's executive said he will likely decide next week about whether to "pick a fight" with county council over non-emergency ambulance services for the Gracedale nursing home.

County executive John Stoffa told WFMZ.com that he has met with the county legal staff this week about possibly seeking bids for the service, despite being told on March 21 by county council president John Cusick to face "political reality" and work out a new contract with the current provider, Nazareth Ambulance.

Stoffa said he believes he can advertise for bids "and not have to go through council." Asked if that would be picking a fight with council, Stoffa replied, "It might also be doing the right thing. By not looking to pick a fight, [the county]  might be setting a precedent -- not accepting the lowest bid."

Stoffa was referring to proposals submitted by both Nazareth and Lifestar Response Corp. on two separate occasions.

Most recently, Lifestar offered to do the job for $225,000 a year for up to three years. That amount was $86,556 per year less than Nazareth Ambulance's proposal.

Stoffa's administration, along with the company that runs Gracedale, the Gracedale Advisory Committee and even council's finance committee, all supported giving a contract to Lifestar.

However, only three of council's nine members,  including Cusick, supported switching to Lifestar when it came to a vote on March 21, even though county officials figured it would reduce the cost of Gracedale operations by $340,000 annually when other costs were factored in.

Council also rejected a Stoffa administration recommendation to switch to Lifestar on Oct. 4. At that time, 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.

Nazareth Ambulance officials and members have repeatedly told council that the squad's existence could hinge on getting a new contract for Gracedale, and several council members have said they are unwilling to go along with a decision that will cost some county taxpayers their jobs.

Dan Chiavaroli, the squad's executive director and president of its board of directors, said losing the contract would mean layoffs of 20 to 25 of the squad's 62 full- and part-time workers.

Nazareth has been providing Gracedale's non-emergency ambulance service for six years. Its current two-year contract expired last Oct. 31, but the squad agreed to a six-month extension until the county decides what to do.

Stoffa told WFMZ.com that swift action is necessary with the contract extension nearing an end. "We can't let this horse ride without a horseman," he said, "and it's time we do what's best for all the county's taxpayers."

As for Lifestar, the company is still interested in landing the Gracedale contract, one way or another.

After council's March 21 vote, senior vice president James Dickinson hinted Lifestar might take legal action against the county.  Friday afternoon, he said the company is still "discussing its options."

"We were the low bidders twice," Dickinson noted. "We want to save the county money ... but we won't be doing that if we end up in court."

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