Counties deal with coroner fee increases

Published 5:00 am Monday, July 7, 2008

As Mississippi’s county budget-makers calculate how much extrafunding will be necessary for fiscal year 2009 to meet newstate-mandated increases for coroner and autopsy fees, the coronersand deputy coroners themselves are relieved to see a pay raisecoming down the pipe for the rarely thanked and often grisly workthey do.

House Bill 525, which Gov. Haley Barbour signed into law on May31, mandates a raise in coroner fees from $85 per call to $125 percall, and ups the autopsy rate from $550 to an even $1000.

Once signed, the bill was scheduled for federal review to checkconsistency with the Voting Rights Act and counties are stillwaiting on final approval before configuring budgets for the 2009fiscal year. If the bill clears its federal review, the state’scoroners will enjoy their first pay increases in almost adecade.

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“We’re very pleased,” said Lincoln County Coroner Clay McMorris.”We’re just glad they passed it. This law will help all coronersand deputy coroners, so it’s fair.”

McMorris listed the duties of a coroner – a list that increasedsubstantially 22 years ago when the state increased theresponsibilities of its coroners when it moved from an inquestsystem to a Coroner System and established the MississippiCoroner’s Association.

Before 1986, the inquest system saw the coroner act as basically adeliveryman, presenting a body and death details to a team of fouror five people who determined the cause of death by inquest.Counties were required to pay the team, and the coroner’s fee wasvery low, McMorris said.

However, since 1986, coroners’ workloads have increased. They areresponsible for death investigations, are trained under stateguidelines, undergo 24 hours of mandatory continuing education eachyear and keep long, unpredictable hours.

Coroners are never off duty. The call could come at any hour.

“Sometimes our calls could be 45 minutes to an hour,” McMorrissaid. “Or, it could take several hours. Our job is to work closelywith law enforcement investigators, and to determine a cause ofevery death. As for the amount of time we put in, that new raisejust helps us.”

McMorris said one of the most satisfying stipulations in thepending law is that both coroners and deputy coroners received theraise across the board, which more largely helps the deputycoroners. While McMorris and other elected coroners typically arepaid $900 per month, plus call fees, deputy coroners can be paid aslittle as $175 per month plus call fees.

“The law isn’t touching our base salaries at all, but it helps allcoroners, elected and deputy, because now everybody is getting thesame per-call raise,” he said.

Copiah County Coroner Ellis Stuart said the fee increase will bewelcomed among his deputies, who use their own vehicles and oftenput money toward their own supplies. Stuart praised the work of hisdeputies, who are paid $175 per month for their services.

“They haven’t had an increase in a pretty good while,” Stuart said.”It will be very well worth the money to pay the two I have to dowhat they do.”

In counties like Franklin County, where Coroner Percy Peeler fillsthe position in his retirement for a limited fee, the new increasesare all about the deputies.

Peeler said the increases are overdue and much deserved, as thecoroner’s job is a difficult one, even – or especially – outside ofinvestigations. Peeler said the unlisted duty of a coroner is toconsole and comfort relatives of the deceased in their hour ofneed.

“Families are special – when they call, and it’s 2 a.m., they needus more than they ever have in their lives,” he said. “It’s allaccording to the Lord’s schedule. When He gets ready to call ’emhome, they’re going – and the family needs someone to work withthem. That’s what this office is for.”

McMorris agreed, saying ministering to the grieving families isactually the most important part of the job, as far as he’sconcerned.

“To me, the official details of the job are just that: details,”McMorris said. “I firmly believe the most important duty of acoroner is to be there to minister to and comfort those who havelost their loved ones.”

While county budget-makers agree that the coroner fee increase iswell deserved, some are anxious about appropriating the fundsnecessary to cover the new costs. Coroner budgets in Lincoln,Copiah, Franklin and Lawrence counties are increasing on averagefrom $10,000 up to $40,000.

Lincoln County Administrator David Fields said the county averagesabout 250 coroner calls and 40 autopsies per year. Under the oldrates of $85 per call and $550 per autopsy, the county paid $21,250per year on calls and $31,250 on autopsies annually.

Under the new rates of $125 per call and $1,000 per autopsy, thecounty will pay $31,250 per year on coroner calls and $40,000 peryear for autopsies. The combined raise would require an additional$28,000 if the averages are consistent in 2009.

“It’s just like any other pay raise that goes through for electedofficials – it’s something we’ll have to come through on,” Fieldssaid.

Copiah County Administrator Ronnie Barlow said his county wouldhave no difficulty covering the increases, which will require anadditional $27,600 more than last year’s coroner budget.

Copiah County’s coroner call fees will go up almost $10,000, whilethe autopsy budget will almost double, requiring an additional$18,000.

“It’s just one of those stones we always have to step on any timethe state passes costs along to the counties,” he said. “But Iunderstand the need for the increase.”

Franklin County Chancery Clerk Jill Gilbert said she would budgetapproximately $12,000 additional into her county’s coroner budgetto meet the new costs.

Gilbert said the increase normally would not be a problem forFranklin County, but the uncertainty of the Secure Rural Schoolsand Community Self-Determination Act – an as-yet unapproved pieceof federal legislation that reimburses counties that lose possibletax revenue from protects national forest lands – is giving countyofficials pause. Franklin County normally receives a $1.2 millionpayment under the missing legislation.

“We’ll handle it – the state is making us handle it,” Gilbert said.”But we don’t know where the money is going to come from. That’sthe only problem.”

Lawrence County Board of Supervisors Controller Kelly Millerconfirmed his county averages 70 coroner calls each year and 18autopsies – considerably lower than neighboring Lincoln County butstill a sharp increase over the old budget.

Under the new rates, the increase for coroner fees will be small -an additional $2,800 will be needed to cover the projected cost of$8,750. The county’s autopsy fees will double, however, to a totalof $18,000.