Pitkin County coroner will see budget boost | AspenTimes.com

Pitkin County coroner will see budget boost

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
Dr. Steve Ayers

ASPEN – The modernization of the Pitkin County coroner’s office and the anticipated cost of more autopsies will mean additional expenses of $40,000 annually for each of the next two years, but the coroner and his deputies still might be transporting bodies in their personal vehicles.

Dr. Steve Ayers, the county coroner, described a lean operation to county commissioners during a budget discussion Monday and received the nod for an additional $80,000 in spending over the next two years. The sum does not, however, include hoped-for pay raises for the on-call staff or an official coroner’s vehicle.

It does reflect an ongoing effort to digitize all of the coroner’s paper files – some 600 old files will be archived in a computerized format, and the office is pursuing notebook-style computers on which coroners will take notes and file their reports to a web-based system.

In addition, Ayers said, he is standardizing all of the office’s policies and procedures, so all deputy coroners know how to handle cases of various types according to a standard protocol.

Two new deputy coroners have been added in the past 18 months, giving the staff five active deputy coroners, plus Ayers and an administrative assistant. A chief deputy coroner remains on the staff in a back-up position but is not conducting investigations regularly. Deputies are paid $50 per hour for investigations and $35 per hour for administrative work; Ayers makes $100 an hour. Ayers had requested $75 per hour for investigation by deputies and $150 for work by the chief coroner, but those costs are not part of the 2012 budget.

Deputies don’t get paid to be on call, and typically take time off work from their other job when a death must be investigated.

“They’re really not making any money,” Ayers said of the $50 per hour rate. “We’re part-time. We all have other jobs. It can be pretty disruptive to your life, emotionally and in other ways,” he said of coroner duties.

Ayers’ compensation totaled $27,500 in 2010, he said. If Pitkin County wasn’t governed by a home-rule charter, the state would dictate a salary of $44,200 for the chief coroner, based on the county’s size.

Included in the coroner’s 2012 budget is more money for autopsies because a new state law requires them in more situations, Ayers said.

“It requires an autopsy in most of the kind of cases we deal with,” he said. “It means we’re going to have to do more autopsies.”

Ayers anticipates going from 18 autopsies per year to about 24, at a cost of $7,200 apiece.

In addition, Ayers said, his office will be more careful about deciding which cases it takes on rather than deeming a death to be of natural causes. The discovery of extenuating circumstances “almost backfired” in a couple of cases that the coroner’s office deemed natural within the past year, he said. One death was ultimately ruled accidental, and the other was natural, but Ayers predicted a more cautious approach going forward.

“We’re probably going to be a little more aggressive about checking facts on some of these,” he said.

The coroner’s office handles cases in which fatalities involve an accident, suicide, the death of someone in custody, or an unexplained cause.

If an autopsy is necessary, it is typically done by a forensic pathologist in Mesa County, usually requiring someone from the office to drive the body to Grand Junction in his or her own vehicle. One deputy coroner’s wife is “not too happy about it,” Ayers said, and down the road, the office might ask for a county vehicle.

On the other hand, phase three of the Aspen Valley Hospital expansion includes a morgue with a forensics laboratory. A pathologist has indicated possible interest in basing out of Aspen in the future, Ayers told commissioners. In the meantime, commissioners appeared to agree that when a vehicle is rotated out of the sheriff’s office fleet, it should go to the coroner’s office.

The added expenses for the coroner were among several staffing requests and other extra costs considered by commissioners on Tuesday. They also agreed to:

• Two new positions in Health and Human Services to handle the growing caseload that has resulted from the recession. One of the positions will be capped at three years. The budgeted amount in 2012 totals $68,658.

• An increase of $27,096 per year for each of the next three years for child-care assistance.

• A special events position in the sheriff’s office for two years that is already partially funded though existing resources. An additional $23,196 is budgeted. A vacant deputy post in the sheriff’s office will go unfilled for now, but Sheriff Joe DiSalvo said: “If my calls for service go up, I may come back and ask for this position back.”

• A citizen survey at a cost of $15,000. The survey had been done every other year, but it was cut in 2011, said County Manager Jon Peacock.