For almost two years now, the city of San Diego has been talking about putting its ambulance contract out to bid. Talk costs money.

The city has spent almost $165,000 on a consultant to help develop a bid – the equivalent of what it would cost to fund eight additional hours at a neighborhood library. City staff also worked thousands of hours on the project.

All that effort and money might not have gotten the city any closer to a new ambulance contract than when it started.

This situation is the doing of interim mayor Todd Gloria’s two predecessors, Bob Filner and Jerry Sanders. Both considered putting the ambulance contract out to bid, but ultimately punted the issue. By the end of October, Gloria plans to choose whether to go with a plan the city’s already developed or start all over again. It will be a major moment in his brief tenure leading the city.

“I think it’s going to depend on the direction we take whether it’s the biggest decision or among them,” said Gloria spokeswoman Katie Keach.

Sending ambulances to 911 calls is among the most important things the city does. The contract could address how many people show up to emergencies and how many should be paramedics or EMTs, what vehicles they take and how quickly they should get there. And the city’s decided to answer another big question: Should the city’s ambulance workers be public or private?

For more than 15 years, Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Rural/Metro has provided San Diego’s ambulance services. Under Sanders, fire and emergency medical officials began preparing a contract proposal so that Rural/Metro or another private company would continue to do it.

When Filner took office, things changed. He successfully pushed for $100,000 in the budget so that the city’s Fire-Rescue Department could develop its own plan to run the ambulance system. The money appears to be unspent.

But because the Fire-Rescue Department was involved in crafting the original contract proposal, the city would have to scrap it for a new one so that the department could bid against private companies without bias.

The start-all-over-again option got a great reception at a recent City Council committee hearing. Councilwomen Myrtle Cole and Marti Emerald in particular signaled their interest in the Fire-Rescue Department ultimately taking over.

A competition between the Fire-Rescue Department and private companies raises an additional question: What happens if the department loses? That would mean, Fire Chief Javier Mainar said at the committee hearing, that the department would have no role in crafting a crucial part of the emergency medical system it runs.

Mainar said after the hearing he expected the city could figure out how to wall off department officials who prepared the contract proposal from ones who would work on the department’s formal bid. He also would like to somehow keep some of the work the city’s already done if there’s a do-over.

“I’m hoping some of it can be salvaged,” Mainar said.

Keach said Gloria’s weighing all these issues and will consider input from his Council colleagues. But Gloria, she said, plans to make the decision without a Council vote.

Liam Dillon was formerly a senior reporter and assistant editor for Voice of San Diego. He led VOSD’s investigations and wrote about how regular people...

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