LEALMAN — After a bizarre play of back-and-forth by county officials, the decision seems to be final — the Lealman Fire District is the choice to provide fire service to Tierra Verde.
That was the decision of a countywide committee that ranked Lealman as No. 1 a month ago. But Monday, Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala announced he had changed his mind and would recommend that the County Commission rebid the contract because he wasn't sure Lealman had really given the lowest bid. By mid-afternoon Tuesday, LaSala had reversed himself and said the county was sticking with Lealman although he still seemed to have doubts its bid was truly the lowest cost.
The fact that Lealman is still the first choice "doesn't mean they're not going to make sure we're getting the true lowest net cost," LaSala said.
Lealman fire Chief Rick Graham could not be reached for comment. But earlier in the day, he'd expressed shock and bewilderment at receiving the news on Monday that the contract would be rebid.
"I got the call right after lunch and thought, 'You've got to be kidding me,' " Graham said. "I still don't have a good understanding why they're redoing it."
Equally perplexed was Paul Murray, president of the Tierra Verde Community Association, who sat on the committee that chose Lealman. Murray said he had received a message saying that there was some confusion and the contract needed to be rebid. But Murray said of the process, "I wasn't confused." He said he was confused by the county's reversal.
For years, the city of St. Petersburg has contracted with Tierra Verde to provide fire service to the island. That contract will end this fall, and island residents have asked the county to open the contract to bidders to see if they could get a lower price. Three agencies bid: Lealman, St. Pete Beach and St. Petersburg. Lealman had the lowest bid, and the county was prepared to negotiate the details of the deal with Lealman.
Shortly after that, St. Pete Beach wrote the county a letter objecting to the Lealman bid. Among the objections was the way Lealman had figured its costs — apparently shifting some fire costs to the EMS side of the equation. St. Pete Beach said had it done the same, it would have had a lower bid than Lealman.
The county initially dismissed St. Pete Beach's letter, saying it could be "perceived" as an illegal attempt to "lobby for award of a contract," according to a letter from Joe Lauro, the county's director of purchasing, to St. Pete Beach City Manager Mike Bonfield.
Bonfield replied that he was only raising legitimate issues and wanted to know the procedure. Lauro responded that there is a grievance process. But St. Pete Beach never used it. On Monday, LaSala said he planned to ask the County Commission to rebid the Tierra Verde contract because he agreed with some questions St. Pete Beach had raised.
Then Tuesday afternoon, things changed again.
"We have been scrubbing those numbers back and forth, back and forth," Assistant County Administrator James Dates said. "We're not reissuing the (bid). … We are comfortable" that Lealman was the right choice.
Staff writer David DeCamp contributed to this story. Anne Lindberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8450.