CARLISLE — Cumberland County commissioners are examining a request from the coroner’s office for an additional $174,000 in funding and plan a decision on the request at a later date.
Coroner Charles Hall presented the request Thursday, citing a 20 percent spike in cases this year as compared to the first seven months of 2012. Hall said without the increase in funds he will run out of money by the end of the year.
Commissioner Jim Hertzler said, “that’s a little tough for me to swallow,” during Thursday’s meeting, saying the increase goes against the commissioners’ goal of closing the budget gap for 2014.
Hertzler said Friday commissioners are weighing their options in an investigation of the finances of the office and the increase request.
“As we would with any extraordinary request of this nature we will be examining it with a fine-tooth comb,” he said.
Hertzler cited an increased number of autopsies that were conducted, as well as procedural changes within the office that increased costs, but Hall denied that he has changed any procedures.
“I haven’t changed any procedures at all as far as how the office is really run,” he said. “We still handle the cases the same way we always have,” citing that two deputies responding to a scene is standard protocol.
Hertzler said Friday that was not the case under the previous coroner.
The previous coroner was Todd Eckenrode, who resigned in May 2012 amid a court case in which he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor possession of a controlled substance by a person who was not prescribed the drug. Chief Deputy Matt Stoner took over for Eckenrode before Gov. Tom Corbett appointed Hall in September 2012.
Hall’s counterpart in Dauphin County, Graham Hetrick, supported Hall’s account. He said Hall is bringing Cumberland County services up to the national average, and politicians are just “sticker shocked.”
Hall said the reasons for the need for a budget increase are fuel costs, overtime and a string of unusual cases that strained the department’s $675,000 budget, including the bus crash on the Pennsylvania Turnpike that killed the coach of a Seton Hill University lacrosse team in March, the strangulation death of a woman at Holy Spirit Hospital in February, and a car fire that killed a man in Carlisle in June.
“All these cases have taken considerable amount of investigation and ate into the overtime budget somewhat,” he said. “I can’t control the amount of people who die, where they die or why they die. My responsibility is to determine the cause and manner of death. I am required by law. If that means doing an autopsy, I must do an autopsy. And I will not sacrifice the integrity or the completeness of an investigation to save money on autopsies.”
Hall said autopsies rose from 70 in all of 2012 to 74 currently in 2013,
Hertzler Thursday reminded Hall of the county’s ongoing mission review process, which encourages departments to scale back spending in an effort to prevent a budget deficit and another double-digit property-tax increase in 2014.
‘Doing everything right’
Hall’s proposal calls for an increase of $12,000 for morgue services, $21,000 for toxicology services, $84,000 for forensic services including autopsies, $10,000 for removal and transport, $10,200 for gas, and $37,200 for overtime, Hertzler said.
Hertzler said, in the first six months of 2012, $261,916.49 was spent, compared with the $394,916.49 in the first half of 2013.
“All of our taxpayers are well aware of the financial challenge that we face, and all of our department in county government are well aware of our efforts to close the current structural deficit that we have. And we will examine the need here, but this doesn’t help us close the budget gap,” he said.
Hetrick said the national autopsy average is between 30 and 40 percent of all fully investigated cases, and he said he believes that Hall is increasing county services to match that average.
He said Hall has the legal responsibility to investigate every case to the fullest, so the death can be determined within reasonable medical certainty, and if that calls for an autopsy, he said Hall is within his rights to do so.
“I concur that if in fact his autopsy rate is within reason, if his case load is up, if he is now certifying with a little more certitude than it had been in the past, then I think he is doing everything right,” he said. “It’s not pleasant for politicians to look at the coroners office and its expenses from one angle, and that these are deceased people, they don’t vote — it’s not glitzy, there is no service provided that they often see. However, if you ask any of the families that had somebody respond to their death, they will tell you it is really important what these people do.”
Hetrick also said fully investigating these incidents can save litigation costs down the road, which would save the county money.