Members of Northampton County Council and the county executive appear to be on a collision course over how a contract will be awarded for non-emergency ambulance service at the Gracedale nursing home.
If no compromise can be reached, both sides could soon be facing off in court.
The issue continued to simmer at Thursday night's county council meeting, even though there was no direct confrontation.
Council solicitor Philip Laurer outlined a memo asked for by council members explaining their legal options should county executive John Stoffa ignore their March 21 request to work out a new contract with the current provider, Nazareth Ambulance, and put the contract out to bid.
Stoffa believes council erred twice -- on March 21 and last Oct. 4 -- in not accepting proposals for the service from Lifestar Response Corp. Both were substantially lower than Nazareth's offers, and county officials estimated that Lifestar's March 21 offer would reduce the cost of Gracedale operations by $340,000 a year.
Stoffa says by putting the contact out to bid, he can award the contract to the low bidder without council's approval. "Our people are in the process of writing the bid specifications," Stoffa said after last night's county council meeting. "They should be out by the end of the week."
The county's contract with Nazareth Ambulance expired last Oct. 31, but the squad agreed to a six-month extension, which ends at the end of April. Stoffa said after the county council meeting that his administration is asking Nazareth for another extension, which would run until the end of June. Nazareth has been providing the service for more than six years.
Council member Peg Ferraro addressed the issue by asking, "Where is the compromise?" She said the Nazareth squad is willing to negotiate further, "and perhaps the price can be less than the last time it came in," resulting in "reasonable savings for the taxpayers."
Nazareth's most recent offer was $311,556 a year for up to three years, $86,556 per year more than Lifestar's.
She said sticking with the Nazareth squad, which has repeatedly told council that its existence could hinge on getting a new contract, prevents the company from being "cut-throated by the powerful."
Robert Werner, one of three council members who voted in favor of accepting Lifestar's latest proposal, said Lifestar was the choice of Premier Healthcare Resources, the company hired by council in September 2011 to run Gracedale. He said Premier is helping to get Gracedale's financial house in order and its recommendation should be followed.
Council member Lamont McClure said if council members "acquiesce to the bid process, we abandon our role as a government body." He said the difference in the proposals between Nazareth and Lifestar "is 1 one-thousandth of a percent of Gracedale's operating budget," adding, "This is not about money. It's about the health and long-term viability of Nazareth EMS."
Lauer said a contract awarded through competitive bidding must be more than $100,000 for council to mount a legal challenge. Council could then try to make the case that low bidder is not qualified; that subsequent negotiations occurred after bids were received, or that cost was not the determining factor.
Lauer said council could possibly ask a judge for a declaratory judgement or an injunction.
Council president John Cusick, who voted in favor of giving the contract to Lifestar, said he was conflicted about this kind of legal maneuvering. "Our government is a system of checks and balances," he said. "Trying to do this end run [around the county executive] would set a precedent. … I hope we could avoid litigation."
Stoffa said after the meeting he was not afraid of a legal confrontation with council. "I can think of 10 or 12 good reasons why [competitive bidding] should be done. We should support Premier and prevent a possible lawsuit [from Lifestar]. … Council can't just say it wants a local company. … The deciding factor in this is the money."