JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri’s lieutenant governor is backing challengers to two incumbents in a local election who decided not to buy county vehicles from a company owned by his brother.
The Cole County Commission’s decision to replace locally made ambulances with foreign ones is at the center of an ongoing political dispute involving Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe.
Kehoe’s brother, John Kehoe, is the majority owner of Osage Ambulances in nearby Linn, Missouri, which had supplied the county’s ambulances.
Mike Kehoe, born in St. Louis, started his mid-Missouri career at Osage Industries in the 1980s, purchasing what was a money-losing operation and turning it around, according to a biography posted on his campaign website. He sold the company in 1992.
Cole County’s shift away from Osage-made ambulances — the county until late 2018 hadn’t purchased another company’s ambulances in nearly a decade, according to the Jefferson City News Tribune — frustrated Osage officials and helped fuel political discord here leading up to the Aug. 4 GOP primary.
State records show that in August, Mike Kehoe and his wife, Claudia, made a $500 contribution to James R. Mihalevich, who is challenging the incumbent eastern district commissioner. In December, Mike Kehoe contributed $500 to Harry Otto, who is running in the western district.
Kehoe’s involvement is all the more intriguing given his clout in local and state politics. Before being appointed lieutenant governor in 2018, Kehoe was Cole County’s state senator. And for nearly 20 years, Kehoe owned a Ford and Lincoln dealership in Jefferson City, making him a well-known name around the capital city.
“I’m kind of surprised a lieutenant governor’s going to get involved in a local race, but he can support who he wants,” said incumbent Eastern District Commissioner Jeff Hoelscher.
Hoelscher and Western District Commissioner Kris Scheperle, both Republicans, greenlighted what proved to be the controversial purchases.
The third county commissioner, Presiding Commissioner Sam Bushman, abstained from the vote in December 2018 and voted “no” on the May 2019 purchases. Bushman won’t face reelection until 2022.
The commission, with Bushman again providing the lone “no” vote, split 2-1 in December when the majority approved the purchase of three more ambulances from Demers, the News Tribune reported.
Proponents of the purchases say the Canadian ambulances are less expensive and are of higher quality than Osage vehicles. But Mike Kehoe, in an interview, described the purchasing process as unfair, saying Osage hasn’t been given the opportunity to bid for the county’s business since the December 2018 purchases.
“I think they should bid everything,” Kehoe said in an interview. “And if people in Missouri that produce that product don’t get it, then they don’t get it. At least they gave it a shot.”
Jason White, a board member of the Missouri Emergency Medical Services Association, said he tried to mediate the dispute between the county and the company last year.
“There were some people pretty upset,” he said.
Mihalevich and Otto, the two challengers, said the commission’s position on the ambulance purchases was one of their key concerns.
“I want to further dive in to why we are purchasing ambulances from Canada as opposed to” Osage, Mihalevich said.
But they said the lieutenant governor did not ask them to address the ambulance purchases as a condition of his support. Both said they’ve known the lieutenant governor for years.
Kehoe acknowledged the ambulance-purchasing issue — the vehicles sell for roughly $200,000 each — was one reason he wasn’t supporting the incumbents.
“It’s probably the least of the reasons,” he said. “But the overall reason is that ... I don’t believe they’re operating the county with the taxpayers’ interest at heart.”
Otto, who has worked as a policy adviser in Gov. Mike Parson’s office, and who had worked as a deputy state auditor under former Auditor Tom Schweich, said questionable decisions extend beyond the ambulance purchases.
The state auditor grades auditees on a four-tiered scale: excellent, good, fair and poor.
“I believe, with my experience, if we were to do an audit of Cole County, the best it could do is ‘fair’ in some of its respects,” Otto said.
He said he was concerned the commission didn’t consider a state law that in many cases requires governmental bodies to make purchases from U.S.-based companies, and was also worried the commission didn’t take into account travel and lodging costs associated with working with a foreign company.
In addition to Mike Kehoe’s $500 check, John Kehoe and his wife, Patty, also helped underwrite Mihalevich’s campaign with a $1,000 check in August, according to Missouri Ethics Commission records. John Kehoe did not return requests for comment.
Mihalevich, currently a member of the Jefferson City Council, said in addition to the ambulance purchases, he disagreed with the county’s decision to hire Victory Enterprises and Strategic Capitol Consulting for economic development work over the Jefferson City Chamber of Commerce.
When the three new vehicles arrive in June, Demers ambulances will make up half of the county’s 14-ambulance fleet, said Matt Lindewirth, who became chief of the Cole County Emergency Medical Services in 2018, months before the county approved its first Demers purchase.
He said the county saved roughly $119,000 by purchasing seven ambulances from the Canadian company, allowing the county to spend the savings on new ventilators for ambulances as well as new IV pumps.
Lindewirth said both companies provided prices through a cooperative purchasing process prior to the December 2018 vote. He said Demers’ prices have only increased slightly since then.
“We think we allowed a fair process. They were both given the opportunity to submit their pricing,” Lindewirth said. “Saving $119,000 in the course of 13 months for the taxpayer I think is a pretty good deal.
“I believe that it was a safer product, a product that met what we were looking for and ultimately it was cheaper,” he said. Lindewirth said Demers promised to deliver the ambulances months earlier than Osage.
Scheperle, the western district commissioner, said asking companies for new prices every time a purchase is made would give the previous high bidder an advantage by potentially allowing it to undercut the previous low bidder.
“Yes we’d like to buy local, but, you know, it’s — you’ve got to spend the taxpayers’ money as wisely as you can,” he said.
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