WASILLA --Mat-Su Borough managers have cancelled a nearly $1 million contract to dispatch emergency responders amid dueling bids from the cities of Palmer and Wasilla.
The decision shocked Palmer officials, who thought they had the winning bid -- because that's initially what the borough told them.
The longstanding emergency dispatch center at the Palmer police station fields the Valley's incoming 911 calls under a three-year contract that expires in June.
Since 2010, the number of 911 calls fielded by Palmer dispatchers has jumped from 16,854 to 24,628, rising almost 30 percent in the last year alone, according to statistics provided by Palmer public safety officials.
From Palmer, dispatchers route Alaska State Troopers and Wasilla police calls to Wasilla's 10-year-old regional dispatch center, known as MatCom. Palmer handles borough-wide fire, rescue and EMS calls, as well as Palmer police and fire.
But this year, both Palmer and Wasilla submitted proposals to provide 911 call-taking services for the entire borough.
Palmer officials said they could provide the service for $943,046 or less if the borough handled software costs associated with a computer-aided dispatch system. Wasilla's bid came in at around $1.3 million, documents show. Palmer also bested Wasilla in a point score tallied by five raters.
Palmer submitted the "apparent successful" proposal, according to a March 12 fax from borough purchasing officer Russ Krafft.
Wasilla filed a seven-point protest on March 14 which referenced scoring errors, bias on the part of one of five people rating the bids, and Palmer's failure to comply with various aspects of the bid request.
The borough on March 19 sent out a letter retracting the notice of Palmer's successful proposal and cancelling the bid solicitation altogether.
The decision rendered Wasilla's protest moot, the second letter said. The borough plans to issue a "new solicitation in the coming months," it said. Officials say they hope to extend Palmer's contract by up to a year.
The borough's response left Palmer officials baffled and frustrated this week.
Some accused the borough of politicizing the issue and fueling a Palmer-Wasilla rivalry during a city council meeting Tuesday night.
Palmer City Manager Doug Griffin on Friday sent a strongly worded letter to Borough Manager John Moosey calling Wasilla's protest points "at best speculative and frivolous and at worst specious and untrue."
Wasilla Mayor Verne Rupright and police Chief Gene Belden did not return calls for comment.
Griffin questioned the borough's decision, coming so late in the bid process.
"The decision appears to be an unreasonable abuse of discretion in the evaluation of the City of Palmer bid proposal," he wrote. "... It would appear that other factors outside of an objective, good faith and fair dealing procurement process have entered into what should be a rather routine bid, evaluation, and award process."
The letter asks for a more complete explanation of how the borough's dispatch needs changed in a few days' time, with a response by April 10. "Was there any political pressure applied by elected officials in shaping the outcome of this procurement process? Did discussions regarding consolidated dispatch in the Borough play any role in this procurement process?"
Borough and some local officials have been pressing to consolidate 911 dispatch services which currently don't use the same computer software. A borough consultant last year recommended consolidation as a public safety benefit even though it could actually increase costs.
Moosey, contacted before the letter was issued, said he delayed the contracting process not to fuel a dispatch war but because managers decided to take a broader look at how long-term dispatch needs should be handled.
Krafft said Friday that he didn't see anything in Wasilla's protest that would have changed his initial bid decision but moving to cancel the bid was made separate from that.
Moosey and Krafft took a harder look at the numbers and decided to review the whole process, they said.
Krafft said Palmer's price didn't reflect borough support for Palmer's dispatch contract including hundreds of hours of Information Technology staff time.
Moosey said Palmer's bid was nearly $200,000 more than the borough is paying the city now. He said he's already juggling numerous budget constraints. The borough is considering hiring more full-time emergency responders after sharply cutting hours for paid on-call responders to comply with state Public Employees' Retirement System and potential health-care demands. The state is also warning of 22 to 24 percent higher PERS contributions, he said, but less money coming to the borough from revenue sharing.
"I need to keep the financial under control," he said.
Palmer has provided dispatch services since 1970, public safety director Jon Owen said. Dispatchers there, unlike those at Wasilla who strictly handle law enforcement calls, are trained to handle fire and medical emergencies with callers on the line, Owen said Tuesday night.
"It's the emergency medical dispatch part of this, when people call 911 and say, 'My husband's fallen to the floor, he's blue and not breathing," he said. "I've walked into the dispatch center and seen dispatchers (instructing callers in) CPR on separate things."
It's possible the borough could split the emergency dispatch contract into separate parts, one for the initial 911 call takers and the other for dispatchers who send out emergency responders, officials said Friday.
Reach Zaz Hollander at firstname.lastname@example.org or (907) 352-6705.
By ZAZ HOLLANDER