Coroner to sheriff's department proposal won't save money

FRESNO, Calif.

"If you did break up the Coroners Public Administrators office you would be at a cost neutral position."

After a study ordered just last week by the board, County Administrator John Navarette said merging the Coroner, with the sheriff's office and the related office of Public Administrator with the District Attorney would not save any money. Because while cutting the Coroner and his salary of $120 thousand, plus his benefits, along with other miscellaneous costs would amount to an estimated $209 thousand. But Navarett says the Sheriff would want that amount transferred to her department so she could run the county morgue.

Supervisor Henry Perea doesn't think it makes any sense. "I haven't heard efficiency issues, I haven't heard there's a public outcry there's a problem with this issue, I've heard nothing within the counties organizational structure we should do this."

Supervisor Judy Case also expressed reservations about the move. "There in fact would be no cost savings, because the Sheriff would want to keep any cost savings in her department. I am not ready to go there."

But supervisor Debbie Poochigian who along with Supervisor Andreas Borgeas is pushing the idea pressed her case. "I think it is something done across the state in 37counties and I don't think it should be discounted." She said.

We asked Poochigian, why move ahead if the change won't serve any money? She responded: "Well it's not just about saving money. I believe when we come back in December we will find it is going to save money after all the departments have weighed in its about efficiency as well."

Sheriff Mims told us she didn't seek a takeover. "This is board direction. Nobody asked for this." But she added, "It's something we can definitely do, we can perform this."

But the Coroner, Dr. David Hadden says turning the job over to the sheriff is a backwards idea. "I mean there's a real difference in people how they think when the carry a gun and carry a scalpel to say the two are aligned and can work well together is not a modern approach. To say there will be budget, there will be cost savings is false. There's some other agenda going on here."

What does he think that is?

"That's a little hard to say. It gets a little personal I'm going to stay away from that."

But Poochigian denied any personal motive. "This was not my idea, this was something we do once every four years we do this before each election cycle so it's not personal."

The Board of Supervisors does have the option of reviewing the status of county departments, even those headed by other elected officials. They could evaluate merging other departments like the County Assessor and County Auditor, but narrowed their choice to the Coroner and Sheriff. The decision to look at moving the Coroners office under the Sheriff's Department and making the Sheriff the Coroner complies with the County Charter which requires the person serving as Coroner to be an elected official. Such a change would have to come before the next election cycle, and that's why the Supervisors are in a rush to get it done before candidates begin registering for the June Primary. Hadden has said he planned on seeking re-election.

Hadden is a medical doctor, and believes any Coroner should be a physician. The county currently does not have that requirement. Hadden has suggested that rather than turn the job over to the Sheriff, a team of experts should be empaneled to recruit a qualified Medical Examiner to run the Coroner's office, who the Board of Supervisors could then appoint. His primary problem with the Sheriff running the department is the potential for a conflict of interest when investigating the deaths of jail inmates, or those killed by law enforcement officers.

The county's legal counsel, Kevin Briggs told the Supervisors no such conflict would exist. The Board voted 4 to 1, with Perea the only no vote, against moving forward with the proposal. The Board meets again on December 3rd to take a final vote of turning the office of Fresno County Coroner over the Sheriff's Department.

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