Coroner hopefuls debate budget

GREENFIELD — Four Hancock County coroner hopefuls say the office has gone too long without good representation before the board that oversees its budget, and each hopeful promises to fight for more funding if elected.

The Republic race — no Democrats have filed for the office — pits current chief deputy coroner Rudy Nylund against Dan Devoy, Joe Fortner and David Stillinger. Devoy and Fortner have each worked as deputy coroners in the past; Stillinger is a local funeral home director and is a state-certified Medicolegal Death Investigator.

The coroner is called upon to determine a person’s cause of death when a death is considered suspicious or if the victim was alone when they died. In 2015, the office operated with a $57,000 budget, which covers autopsies, the officeholder’s salary and deputy coroner pay.

The office has struggled in recent years to work within its budget, often needing the county council to allocate emergency funding to cover more costly line items, including autopsies — about $2,000 each — and the paychecks of deputy coroners — $100 per death investigation.

The candidates agree the new coroner will have to get control of the budget, and they plan work closely with the council from the start of their term to find the best way to rectify spending issues.

Nylund said his biggest concern is the county’s growing population. More people means more deaths; and more deaths would likely bring an increase in the number of autopsies needed each year.

The coroner’s office oversaw 129 death investigations in 2015, and Nylund said he’s certain that number will only go up with the county’s rising population, which U.S. Census Bureau figures show went from 70,045 in 2010 to 71,978 in 2014.

Nylund plans to go to the county council and commissioners to set up a timeline to gradually increase the coroner’s budget to anticipate how that growth will affect the office.

As the owner of a small local business, Stillinger said he knows how to work inside a strict budget and how to utilize funds already available. He knows asking for more funding is inevitable, but he wants to find a way to rethink spending before going to the board to ask for additional support.

Devoy and Fortner say hiring the right deputy coroners to conduct death investigations is the first step to saving money.

Fortner, who works as EMS Coordinator for Hancock Regional Hospital, said utilizing the skills and expertise of medically-experienced deputy coroners will cut down on the number of autopsies needed. If someone with a working knowledge of the human body handles a death investigation, they’ll know right away if the death was caused by natural means or otherwise. A natural death won’t require an autopsy, he said.

Devoy agreed but pointed to another means of cost savings; in his time as a deputy coroner, he didn’t accept payments to investigate deaths by natural causes. In his mind, those deaths aren’t coroner calls, and he’ll have conversations with his deputies about keeping to the same standard.

Devoy, a field officer for the county’s community corrections facility, said he also believes having the elected coroner handle the majority of death investigations will help cut costs significantly.

The county’s current coroner, Democrat Crystel Myers, who has not filed to run for reelection, has admitted she hasn’t handled a death investigation since 2013, although she says she handles all the administrative duties of the office.

In 2015, the county spent more than $10,000 paying deputies, which amounts to more than the elected officeholder’s $7,500 salary for the year.

The county’s taxpayers will benefit significantly when they aren’t footing the coroner’s salary and so many per-call paychecks issued to deputy coroners, Devoy said. Those savings could then be utilized in other areas of the coroner budget, he said.

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Caitlin VanOverberghe is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3237 or cvanoverberghe@greenfieldreporter.com.