Unicoi County MedicOne contract lands in court

Sue Guinn Legg • Jan 31, 2019 at 11:56 PM

ERWIN — The Unicoi County Commission’s recent decision against reconsidering its December award of the county’s ambulance service contract to MedicOne Medical Response has landed the commission and county mayor in court.

In a split 5-3 vote Monday with Commission Chairman Loren Thomas abstaining, the commission rejected a motion to reconsider, which would have allowed the county to put the ambulance contract back out for bid.

On Wednesday, Johnny Day, the leader of a group of county residents concerned that flaws in the original request for contract proposals resulted in MedicOne submitting the only bid, filed a Chancery Court action seeking an injunction and a declaratory judgment to set aside the MedicOne contract and require the county  to conduct a competitive bidding process in compliance with state law.

While commissioners on both sides of Monday’s vote conceded the original bidding process was flawed and expressed a desire to correct the errors, the decision was influenced by the potential for a breach-of-contract lawsuit that Commissioner Glenn White said could potentially cost the county $900,000 in legal penalties, or the equivalent of a 30-cent property tax increase.

Issues with MedicOne’s performance, including long wait times and repeated failures to maintain an adequate number of ambulances and staff to meet the terms of its current contract, have been the topic of numerous county committee and community task force meetings for more than two years.

Day’s lawsuit against the commission and Mayor Garland “Bubba” Evely alleges MedicOne has held the county contract for nearly eight years during which it has been “cited for dozens of contract violations including but not limited to poor staffing and poor response times that have likely resulted in at least three deaths.”

The suit alleges conflicts of interest, including MedicOne owner and CEO Jim Reeves’ volunteer service as an auxiliary deputy for the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department and gifts of “expensive equipment” to the county including several defibrillators for the courthouse and sheriff’s department vehicles.

Day alleges that since 2015, Commissioner Loren Thomas, who was elected commission chairman in September, has lobbied the commission for MedicOne and voted against rebidding the ambulance contract on multiple occasions while receiving “a personal, indirect financial benefit” from MedicOne through his wife’s employment by the company.

His suit further alleges that during a period that began prior to the county’s May 11 advertisement for bids on the contract and continued through the commission’s Dec. 17 award of the contract to MedicOne, Thomas failed to inform the mayor and other commissioners of his direct knowledge that two other ambulance companies had on multiple occasions expressed “firm interest” in bidding on the contract.

The suit contends Evely has publicly stated and continues to maintain that the MedicOne contract he signed two days after the commission’s Dec.17 vote on contract was a “marked up draft copy” and that the final contract remains in his office awaiting signatures from both him and Reeves.”

Finally, the suit alleges the county failed to employ an open, fair and competitive bidding process and to solicit more than one bid on the contract in violation of a state statute and in contradiction of a 2008 state attorney general opinion and Tennessee Supreme Court ruling.

The suit requests a judgment enjoining the county from taking further action on the MedicOne contract, declaring the contract unenforceable and compelling the mayor and commissioners to execute a new bidding process.

On Thursday afternoon County Attorney Doug Shults said the county had just received the lawsuit and would review and respond to the allegations through the court.

Evely deferred comment citing the pending litigation. The newspaper’s attempts to reach Thomas for comment were unsuccessful.

Day said Thursday, “The only relief I am looking for is to get this thing back out for bid. That’s all I’m looking for.”