Rural Metro Financial Woes Put County Ambulance Contract in Jeopardy

The company that provides Santa Clara County’s ambulance services is in need of rescue. In December 2010, the Board of Supervisors contracted with Rural Metro, which missed an important bond payment last week, leading industry insiders and county officials to worry that the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based company may be headed towards bankruptcy. County CEO Jeff Smith and COO Gary Graves have said that the county is making contingency plans, which mainly consist of freaking-the-eff-out in between games of liar’s poker with Rural Metro execs. Word is Rural Metro has told the county it intends to restructure its debt, while there are also whispers that the company has informed its unions to prepare for the worst. From the county’s perspective, there are only three real options going forward: The county starts another competitive bid process for EMT services; Rural Metro defaults on its contract and the county gets all the company’s ambulances and assets, which can then be contracted out to a new company; or Rural Metro gets its act together and stops acting like a bunch of amateurs. The ambulance provider seemed to be finally coming to terms with its obligations after a receiving a stern letter in January from county EMS director Michael Petrie, who warned that continued slow response times in Sunnyvale could constitute a breach of contract. But now that all could be inconsequential, which raises the question: How did the county come to terms with such a bumbling organization? Cue George Shirakawa Jr.’s theme music. Pre-felony-charged Shirakawa and his former supervisor colleagues Mike Wasserman and Dave Cortese, both of whom remain on the Board, awarded Rural Metro the contract in a 3-2 vote, with Ken Yeager and Liz Kniss opposed. Fly called over to Wasserman’s office to check his 20-20 vision—in fairness, he was only in office for a couple weeks before the vote—but hindsight and common courtesy were in short supply, as no one bothered to return multiple phone calls. (Also in fairness, no supervisor is more petrified to rock the boat than Wasserman, who is up for re-election in 2014.) Cortese’s office said email was the best way to reach the supervisor, but apparently he couldn’t pull himself away from the beach, or at least that’s what pictures on his Facebook page suggest. But, in fairness to Cortese, we’re still a year out until he plans to run for mayor of San Jose—the city that would be most affected by a disruption in ambulance services that he voted for.

The Fly is a weekly column written by San Jose Inside staff that provides a behind-the-scenes look at local politics.


  1. Ha! no surprise, given how Rural/Metro low-balled their bid. The old adage…“you get what you pay for” rings so true here. I makes no sense why government always chooses the lowest bid, and never considers any other factors other than cost with the attitude: “hey, they submitted the cheapest bid, let’s give the contract to them.” I work in government and get pushed by the City’s BeanCounters to always accept the lowest bid regardless of other factors, I guess counting beans is more important than ensuring efficiency. I am big fan of going back to the days of how the Santa Clara County EMS was run using SCV and Medevac back in the 1980’s when I worked as a medic. Things were running fine, no problems. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it! Then again, I remember SJFD has ambulances that are not being used, why just use these? add a FF/EMT as the driver with the FF/PM, response times in SJ will improve I bet.

  2. Big Geo thought he was Tony Soprano, cruisin’ around the ‘hood with his big SUV and his handgun, and he got away with pushing this fiasco through because the other Sups are just hapless Bobble-heads.

  3. From December 2010:

    Cortese:  “This has been a lengthy, comprehensive and transparent process.  While we have enjoyed a good relationship with AMR for the past several decades, that cannot be the basis for this decision. The Rural/Metro contract will be more beneficial to county residents.”

    Shirakawa:  “I am comfortable that the new contract will be an improvement for our community.  During these tough economic times, we not only have to be stewards of County resources, we also have to consider how our decisions will impact what residents will have to pay for services.”

    Wasserman:  “The County conducted a competitive process that produced an agreement which will increase the level of service for our residents for a lower cost.”

  4. tell me again what wizard thought running EMS for profit would be a good idea?  911 needs to be an community owned and employee run non-profit.  nobody knows the ins and outs of the system better than the employees who run it everyday so why let money-hungry bureaucrats call the shots?

    • That’s just what we need. Another army of self-entitled public employees extorting us through their union, whom we can overpay to work half-heartedly for 15 years and to not work at all for another 30.

      • So I guess you work for free?  Or do you also consider your paycheck to be extortion?  Your opinion of our police, fire and ems personnel is beneath contempt.  What’s wonderful about them is that if your house catches fire, or you have a heart attack, they will provide you with the same excellent service they would provide to a citizen who has some appreciation for their work.


        • The free market is the best preventer of extortion. As a contractor I must compete for business. I’ve discovered that even policemen and firemen will drop you like a hot potato and hire somebody else if you try to gouge them. I don’t blame them. I don’t take it personally. I don’t take it as an assault to my character. It ain’t personal- it’s business. 
          Unlike public employees I can only charge as much as the market will bear. I don’t have any city councilpersons or county supervisors in my hip pocket dedicated to looking after my interests, eliminating my competition, legislating that everybody must purchase my services, and seeing to it that everybody must deal only with me.


        • Ah.  A “Free Market Fundamentalist”.  The ‘market’ will solve everything.  The best preventer of extortion is regulation.  “Free Market” business cheat people all the time.  Time after time we see example after example about how businesses will not ‘self-regulate’ and they work tirelessly to eliminate competition so that they can set prices and maximize profits.

          Maybe as a small businessman you have more say, but Rural Metro is owned by a private equity firm that could care less what happens to the citizens of Santa Clara County.  They care about one thing, and one thing only…maximizing profit.  Remember Romney’s private equity firm that closed factories, fired employees, shipped jobs overseas and then resold the business they bought?  That’s how he made his fortune. 


  5. Calling 911 from San Jose is becoming a futile exercise with no police officers and now an ambulance company heading for bankruptcy.  You would think the self-proclaimed “Capital of Silicon Valley” could do better than this.

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