By DAN GUZEWICH Staff writer

If all goes to plan, Oneida County will have an appointed medical examiner system in place by Jan. 1 to handle unattended or suspicious deaths.

Following Wednesday’s mostly party-line 16-13 vote by the Board of Legislators, the county will contract with a medical examiner instead of having four coroners.

County Executive Anthony J. Picente Jr. began advocating for the switch in his State of County address in March, and the issue has been contentious. Components of the proposal were debated extensively by legislators at three committee meetings and again yesterday afternoon when the matter went before the full board — where 15 yes votes were needed for passage. With all 29 members present, one of the board’s 16 Republicans voted against the measure while one of the 13 Democrats supported it.

Picente asserted it’s a matter of efficiency and more supervision and accountability, and providing high-level expertise to address the sophisticated level of forensics that are possible with today’s technology.

The coroners and some legislators countered that the existing system should be retained although changes could be made to answer criticisms of current operations. Their view is that the coroner system is a cost-effective approach to handling death calls — and that a medical examiner could cost more. A common theme of coroners has been that their job is not totally understood or fully seen by county officials.

Issues with the current system include: coroners not submitting paperwork in a timely manner, which has various repercussions; the number of forensic autopsies ordered (a forensic autopsy costs more than a normal one); and the length of time some bodies remain at the county morgue at St. Elizabeth Medical Center.

Minority Leader Frank D. Tallarino, D-7, Rome, was among the opponents urging the medical examiner plan be put on hold to allow more time to study and analyze the issues.

Picente maintains that his plan will keep costs about the same. The county spent slightly more than $504,000 last year for coroner calls and activities, like autopsies and morgue services.

Coroner Kevin Barry of Rome, who has served the longest of the current coroners at 30 years, said after the vote that to the best of his knowledge the coroners were never invited by the county executive to talk about abolishing their positions and replacing them with a medical examiner system.

Barry adds that the plan puts an increased but unknown workload on police agencies, which will answer all calls that are now coroner cases. There were 411 last year. While there’s police and coroner overlap on many calls, he notes not all coroner calls now require a police presence. That will change if law enforcement agencies assume responsibility for filling out coroner reports. The county plans to contract with police agencies to compensate them for their time.

"I don’t think he fully understands the scope of the job," said Barry of Sheriff M. Robert Maciol, who told the Ways & Means Committee the change shouldn’t be a problem for his department. "We’re doing it anyway," he said.

Nor did District Attorney Scott E. McNamara express any reservations at the same meeting about doing away with coroners. He said coroners don’t serve a purpose for his office.

Barry also worries the police might miss something surrounding a suspicious death that could attract the attention of a coroner. He points to a case where had it not been for the coroner’s investigation, a homicide would have gone down as death due to natural causes.

Barry hopes the medical examiner hired has forensics credentials.

Coroner David Julian of Marcy said after the vote the county was diminishing representation of the public by public officials.

By the end of the year, Picente and his staff must hire a medical examiner and reach agreements with police agencies for handling tasks now done by coroners at death scenes.