By DAN GUZEWICH Staff writer
County Legislator Brian P. Mandryck doesn’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water. He believes the coroner system should remain in place, but with changes.
He is circulating such a proposal among his fellow legislators as they prepare to vote on a resolution this week to replace the four elected coroners with an appointed medical examiner.
Mandryck, R-17, Lee, wants the medical examiner plan offered by County Executive Anthony J, Picente Jr. put on hold.
"We need to look at all the potential solutions," the legislator said.
Picente’s plan would abolish the position of coroners. In their place, he proposes an office headed up by a medical examiner, through a contract, that would be responsible for unattended deaths and those that require an autopsy. Mandryck contends that the coroners should be retained so long as there is more oversight over their operations.
"Before we vote to change the way we investigate unattended deaths and deaths that require investigation under New York state law, we owe it to ourselves and the taxpayers of Oneida County to study and evaluate all alternatives for both the coroner system and medical examiner system," he said.
Picente says efficiencies would be gained by switching to a medical examiner system although not necessarily a dollar savings. Picente maintains that a medical examiner can better provide high-level expertise and the sophisticated level of forensics possible with current technology.
Issues that arose during the debate surrounding the county executive’s plan include: delayed payments to vendors; number of forensic autopsies compared with the less-costly routine ones; coroners not submitting paperwork in a timely manner; and bodies remaining too long at the morgue.
Picente looks for more accountability with a medical examiner in place.
Mandryck says his plan addresses points like: coroner dispatch; body custody and control; procedures for all autopsies; and coroner payment for services.
"Why not try an alternative approach to the coroner system for the remainder of 2012 to see if it does the resolve the concerns which have been identified," asks Mandryck.
The switch to a medical examiner is on the Board of Legislators’ Ways & Means Committee agenda for Wednesday’s meeting. Seven votes will be needed to move the measure to the full board later in the day. On the floor, 15 yes votes will be needed to make the change. The 29-member board has 16 Republicans and 13 Democrats.
Under the county charter, the Board of Legislators has the power by local law to abolish the office of coroner and create the office of appointed medical examiner. The county Executive selects the medical examiner, subject to confirmation by legislators. A medical examiner has to be a physician — a requirement that does not apply to coroners.
Picente wants to change to a medical examiner Jan. 1. The coroners need to be notified of such a change by early June, as required by the charter.
Mandryck voted against the medical examiner plan when it gained approval last month from the Health & Human Services Committee. He is not alone among the 29 legislators to contend that the coroner system should be kept and improved.
Legislator Ronald D. Townsend, R-1, Rome, who as a member of the Health Committee voted against the medical examiner plan, advocates for the establishment of a freestanding county-run morgue — perhaps at the Veterans Administration outreach medical facility at Griffiss — with a coroner overseeing the operation.
The morgue is now at St. Elizabeth Medical Center in Utica, with the county contracting with St. Elizabeth for a variety of support services.
Coroners are paid $75 for each call they answer and a $25 administrative fee. They are on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Time spent on each call varies with the circumstances of the death.
Coroner Kevin Barry of Rome, the longest-serving coroner of the current ones at 30 years, remains unconvinced that the office of coroner needs to be done away with.
He questions if the county has a firm handle on the job being performed by today’s coroners and the full cost to taxpayers of a medical examiner system down the road. He also wonders who police will call with follow-up questions about death cases if there no longer are coroners responding to scenes and making reports.
Barry also has doubts about how well the county contracting with police agencies to answer what are now coroner calls and make reports like coroners do would work.
Coroner David J. Julian of Marcy, who was elected to his current post in November, supports the designation of a chief coroner to see that all coroners are following policies and procedures. He contends the existing system should be refined and not replaced.
He says that an appointed medical examiner compared with elected coroners serves to diminish the public’s representation by elected officials. As elected officials, coroners do not report to the county executive or the Board of Legislators.