Lewis and Clark County's sheriff will absorb the coroner's duties beginning on Jan. 1, 2019, a change that could cost the county an estimated $265,000 per year.
The Lewis and Clark County Commission voted 2-1 Tuesday to consolidate the two elected positions into one. Commissioners Susan Good Geise and Andy Hunthausen voted in favor of the consolidation, and Commissioner Jim McCormick was firmly against it.
The commissioners noted that the sheriff's office would also absorb the coroner's office budget, but only the sheriff could determine how that is used. The coroner's office currently has an annual operating budget of $390,000, according to county Finance Director Nancy Everson.
“We have no control over the day-to-day operation of the sheriff’s office,” Hunthausen said.
Since all sheriff's office employees are paid a percentage of the sheriff's salary, McCormick argued that raising the sheriff's pay to take on the coroner's duties would be damaging to the county's finances. Everson estimated that the change would cost the county an additional $265,000 per year.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” McCormick said.
The position currently held by Sheriff Leo Dutton is up for election in November 2018, and the candidate filing period opens Jan. 11. Dutton said Tuesday he plans to run for re-election.
“It wasn’t my idea to do this,” Dutton said of combining the positions. “I like my job as sheriff and will continue to do my job and take on the oncoming challenge.”
The commission heard about an hour and a half of public comments at Tuesday's meeting. Among those who spoke up was the current Coroner Bryan Backeberg, who directly asked the commission what would happen to the coroner's office staff as a result of the consolidation.
“I’m concerned about the training for deputies,” Backeberg said. “I’m concerned about the budget for the coroner being used for law enforcement training” rather than for coroner training, Backeberg told the commission.
Backeberg said the decision has pros and cons, but noted “it’s going to be interesting moving forward if the county is willing to take the steps” to combine the positions.
“That’s on them," he said. "There is going to be a lot of discussions, logistically about this."
Deputy and Criminal Investigation Bureau Sgt. Eric Gilbertson spoke before the commission as well, voicing the sheriff office’s concerns about spreading deputies too thin.
“There are three patrol deputies on duty,” Gilbertson said. “ ... The coroner handles 500 deaths per year, and at 8.5 hours per case, that leaves two deputies alone while one is doing a death investigation.”
Geise said that merging the coroner's position with the much more scrutinized sheriff's office would provide more transparency for the public.
“I personally believe consolidation is better for the county,” Geise said.