The Bayonne City Council has authorized an amendment to its current contract with Bespoke Health for the COVID-19 vaccination site at the Korpi Ice Rink to increase the amount of the contract.
The council voted to increase the amount of the contract from $3,500,000 to $7,000,000, effectively doubling the amount at its December meeting. The move was prior to the city’s opening of an additional COVID-19 testing site by Bespoke at Veterans Stadium which then moved indoors to the ice rink behind Bayonne High School at 669 Avenue A due to the winter weather.
Contract awarded during emergency
The vote to approve the contract amendment was pre-empted by heated discussion about the bidding process. City Council President Sharon Ashe-Nadrowski took issue with the fact that the contract was not sent out to bid.
“I think it violates the local Public Contract Law,” Ashe-Nadrowski said. “We did not send this out to bid. We are not allowed to just hand out contracts without going out to a bid process.”
In response, Law Director Jay Coffey said the contract was allowed to be awarded that way due to the public health emergency.
“Bespoke was entered into in connection with the response to the pandemic. My understanding at the time was that the governor, one of his two hundred and twenty something edicts, allowed for contracts like this to be entered into without the need for the public bid process.”
Ashe-Nadrowski agreed that at the time it was awarded, it was an emergency. But she argued that there was plenty of time to look into potential alternate operators in the time since.
“We knew this was coming up at the end of the year,” Ashe-Nadrowski said. “It should have been bid three months ago with whoever is responsible.”
Coffey retorted that the public health emergency is still active until Jan. 11 in some aspects. Ashe-Nadrowski noted that was ending soon.
Increasing amount, not length
Chief Financial Officer Donna Mauer interjected that the contract doesn’t expire until April of 2022 and that the resolution was just amending the contract to increase the amount, not extending the length of it.
“Month to month, we didn’t know what it was going to cost,” Mauer said. “Every month we pay it, it gets submitted to FEMA, and we get the money back.”
“Just because it’s FEMA money doesn’t mean we should be paying $300 a shot when we are down to 600 shots a month,” Ashe-Nadrowski said.
Ashe-Nadrowski also argued that the amendment violated Public Contract Law because the increase is more than 20 percent, which she claimed is not allowed. Mauer retorted that it was allowed due to COVID-19.
“It was awarded under the emergency,” Mauer said. “It was allowed under the emergency.”
Ashe-Nadrowski argued that the emergency is coming to an end and that the council should have went through the public bid process to find a contract prior to the emergency ending. Mauer said that the amendment is coming before the council because it is over 20 percent and reiterated that the contract runs until April.
“If it wasn’t over 20 percent, it wouldn’t come before council,” Mauer said. “We’re not extending the contract. The council awarded the contract for one year.”
Current costs too pricey?
According to Ashe-Nadrowski, she said she understands the importance and need of vaccines, but pointed to the price of the current contract as reason for exploring alternatives to the current contract.
“I think this emergency is over in a way,” Ashe-Nadrowski said. “Pharmacies in Bayonne do this… I talked to a pharmacist today, he does it for $40 a shot. This is costing us about $300 a shot.”
Ashe-Nadrowski acknowledged that there was an uptick in cases, but that the site was not seeing a high volume of people getting vaccinated.
“We got three months worth of numbers,” she said. “We don’t pay these people per shot. We pay them to sit there whether anyone comes or not. Because the number of shots they’re giving out is low, they’re giving out about 1,000 a month, that’s about $300 per shot in arm. The pharmacy does it for $40, it doesn’t cost us any money… We should have bid the contract out and do a vetting of the bidders.”
Ashe-Nadrowski added she had not heard any feedback regarding Bespoke.
“We don’t even know anything about this company,” she said. “Do we get any feedback? Are people happy with them? I don’t know.”
She questioned if there were more viable alternatives, such as any local vendors or small businesses: “Some of our pharmacies will actually come to homes and do vaccinations.”
However, Ashe-Nadrowski did not take issue with keeping Bespoke as the operator for now, but wanted to bid out the contract properly.
“I’m not saying we shouldn’t do this,” she said. “I’m thinking maybe we can just do a one-month extension and do the proper process to see what other bids we get and what the price is.”
The best of both worlds
Third Ward City Councilman Gary La Pelusa was on board with exploring alternatives, suggesting that the council approve the amendment to the existing contract while searching for a potential replacement.
“I think that would be the prudent thing to do, is put it out,” La Pelusa said. “See if we get a lower bid. If not, we don’t know what’s on the table.”
Coffey said Bespoke is going over what they expected when the contract was first signed and that it would normally be explored whether to renew it or not when it expires in April. He added that numbers for November included just short of 1,000 people getting vaccinated at the site throughout the month, increasing from around 600 in September and approximately 700 in October.
“It has increased over the past couple of months, not tremendously so, but I would think this month is going to have more,” Coffey said of the number in December.
The council agreed that there may be an increase now with people getting their booster shots as more become eligible. But Ashe-Nadrowski argued that local pharmacies may be capable of handling the vaccine demand as it goes back down after the holidays. While there has been a high demand for COVID-19 testing recently, the demand for vaccinations hasn’t changed by nearly as much.
First Ward City Councilman Neill Caroll supported keeping the contract with Bespoke.
“At this moment, this is the price that’s available to us,” Carroll said. “I don’t it’s prudent or good government at this time to disrupt this. It’s a safety issue… Lives are being saved. As far as shopping small and going to other pharmacies, I support them all. But we’re entering into a cold season… You get lines out the door and people can’t get served. I think this absolutely needs to go through.”
La Pelusa was not unsympathetic to the idea of rebidding the contract, but also supported the current operator: “I would like to see if there is something considerable less. If there is not, I have not heard bad feedback on this company at all. I don’t see what the problem will be to give this an extra month.”
Council can cancel current contract
Ashe-Nadrowski asked if the council was stuck in the contract, to which Coffey noted there is a termination provision.
“This contract is for a full year,” Coffey said. “We did increase it because of the volume of injections that were provided… The additional $3.5 million is just so we don’t have to come back again… While the total contract amount will now be up to $7 million, we could only spend $3,550,001.”
Coffey added the council could pursue what it suggested earlier regarding both amending the current contract and searching for a new one. After much debate, the council then voted unanimously to approve the resolution amending the contract to $7 million. Second Ward Councilman Sal Gullace was absent.
Following that, the council approved a resolution authorizing the purchasing agent to go out for bids for the provision of a vaccination service. The council may act on the matter further at its next meeting in January.
The city council will meet next at 7 p.m. on Jan. 19 in the council chambers at City Hall at 630 Avenue C. For more information, go to bayonnenj.org and click on the event on the calendar webpage.
For updates on this and other stories, check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Daniel Israel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.