Chastised by Assemblyman Steve Peace (D-San Diego) to "not act . . . like a wimp," the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, ignoring threats of a potential multimillion-dollar cutoff in state funding, on Tuesday rejected a Chicago company's bid to provide homemaker services for the elderly and disabled.
The supervisors' unanimous action, which reaffirmed an action taken by the board in October, appears to place the county on a collision course with the state over operation of the county's In-Home Supportive Services (IHSS) program.
The board's vote also infuriated an executive of the Chicago firm--which bid $1.1 million lower than a local company that now has the $5.3-million-a-year contract--who charged that the supervisors had "caved in" to pressure from a local labor union and to "bias toward . . . the hometown boys."
"When I came here, they told me San Diego wasn't like Chicago," said Mark Heaney, executive director of National Homecare Systems. "But this is worse than anything in Chicago. This whole process was a joke."
Although the supervisors are scheduled to reconsider the matter today, county officials expressed concern that Tuesday's action--which was contrary to the wishes of state Department of Social Services officials, as well as against the advice of county staff--could endanger millions of dollars in state funding for the program.
"I suspect that this thing could eventually end up in court," Don Dudley, assistant director of the county's Social Services Department, said after Tuesday's meeting.
The IHSS program has been a subject of controversy since the summer, and Tuesday's action, though inconclusive, did little other than exacerbate the disagreement and delay its ultimate resolution.
Under the program, about 2,200 poor elderly and disabled persons throughout the county receive assistance with shopping, cooking, cleaning and other chores from about 600 employees of Remedy Temporary Services, the local company that currently supervises the in-home program. The purpose of the program is to reduce public costs by enabling people who cannot care for themselves to remain in their own homes rather than be placed in nursing homes or other public facilities.
Made Lower Bid
Last summer, when the board solicited bids for the program, Chicago-based Wright Marketing Inc. (doing business under the name National Homecare Systems) bid more than $1 million less than Remedy.
Several supervisors, however, expressed concern about National's qualifications to perform the service and also expressed doubts about the bidding process that led to the company's low bid.
Specifically, some supervisors argued that because Remedy's salary structure was known, National was able to undercut Remedy's bid simply by basing the projected cost on lower salaries. Based on figures provided by the United Domestic Workers of America, the union that represents the home workers, National's entry level starting salary would have been $3.75 an hour, compared to Remedy's existing $3.94 figure which, if Remedy retains the contract, is scheduled to increase to $4.25. Union officials also complained that it would take workers longer to achieve raises under National's pay plan than under Remedy.
"Anytime one bidder knows the other's salary structure, it isn't a fair bid process," Supervisor John MacDonald said. Other supervisors warned that the lower salaries also could have produced less-qualified workers.
Union Faulted County
Union officials faulted the county for not specifying a minimum hourly wage or a requirement that existing workers be retained within the bid proposal.
"Something definitely fell between the cracks," said Fahari Jeffers, the union's executive vice president. "By not establishing a minimum, the county made it possible for salaries to go down. No one probably thought that anyone would bid lower than the wage being paid now. But that's exactly what happened."
Amid the simmering dispute, the supervisors voted 3-2 in October, with Brian Bilbray and George Bailey dissenting, not to award the contract to National. In so doing, the board ignored the recommendation of its own county staff, which recommended that National receive the contract and described the Chicago firm as having "a solid reputation for professionalism and integrity."
Instead, the board's majority proposed that the bids of both Remedy and National--the only two companies that bid on the project--be rejected and that the bid process be repeated.
However, because the existing contract was scheduled to expire at the end of November, the county requested a three-month extension from the state so that a second round of bids could be solicited.
The state Department of Social Services agreed to a 30-day extension to the end of this year, but, after reviewing the county's actions, rejected the county's request.