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Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton did not receive a pay raise when he took on the additional role of county coroner effective Jan. 1, quelling concerns that the change could cost the county hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

"There will be no additional compensation for the sheriff and the addition of coroner's duties," commissioner Susan Good-Geise said. "Everyone was well aware of that fact."

In December 2017, the Lewis and Clark County Commission voted 2-1 to consolidate the two elected positions into one. Geise and commissioner Andy Hunthausen voted in favor of the consolidation, and commissioner Jim McCormick was firmly against it.

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 could be damaging to the county's finances. At the time, the county's Finance Director Nancy Everson estimated that increasing the sheriff's salary could end up costing the county an additional $265,000 per year. 

The county's former coroner, Bryan Backeberg, took a pay cut when he and his employees were absorbed by the sheriff's office. Backeberg now works as a deputy coroner under Dutton, but will not be on-call as often as he was before. 

"We did not take this decision lightly," Geise said. "Under this model, there will be efficiencies in both cost and terms of service."

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Dutton said the consolidation has changed his duties. "My liability has changed," he said.

While Dutton is now head of the entire office, he made Capt. Brent Colbert a supervisor for the coroner's division. 

Backeberg and Tim Wong, who came from the prior coroner's office, and deputies Josh VanDyke, LeeAnn Pekovitch and Robert Rivera, have all completed the courses necessary to become certified coroners in the state of Montana. One deputy, Rivera, is in Augusta, an arrangement that commissioner Geise said would allow every death in that community to be attended.

"More people are available to answer calls in more remote areas," Geise said. 

However, the deputies are not allowed to complete coroner work while on-duty as law enforcement officers. Dutton said the separation of duties is legally required, as coroners have the ability to search homes to determine a cause of death and deputies do not. 

Other logistical issues need to be worked out, as well.

"We're using St. Peter's morgue facility for now," Dutton said. He and Geise believe the county will eventually gather the funds to build its own coroner's facility in the newly leased Law and Justice Center on Fuller Avenue.

"We're not able to afford it yet," Dutton said. 

Geise said the commission decided Thursday to end its lease for the previous coroner's office on Rodney Street.

"We had a great landlord and we're grateful to him," Geise said. 

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Reporter at the Helena Independent Record.

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