Jefferson County Coroner Dr. Barbara Weakley-Jones said that Mayor Greg Fischer’s proposed budget cuts would force her to cut staff at a time when the county is seeing a spiking number of investigations related to homicides and opioid overdoses.
The office handled 6,534 cases last year, up by more than 1,000 from just two years earlier. Personnel go to all death scenes outside the hospital to determine cause and manner of death.
Metro Council President David James said the coroner’s office is a vital link in Jefferson County’s public safety chain, but he told Insider that protecting the office from cuts would be difficult, given the city’s $35 million shortfall.
Weakley-Jones will give a presentation to the council budget committee at 3 p.m. Monday.
Fischer has proposed a $65,000 cut for the office, the coroner said, which includes two nurses and four teams of three deputies each who work 24-hour shifts every four days. The cut is exactly the annual pay of one of her deputies.
Removing a deputy, Weakley-Jones said, would disrupt schedules even as deputies barely keep up with the workload, never mind that they’re not getting paid overtime, which, she said, is “probably illegal.”
James said deputy coroners should be paid overtime because “it’s the law.” He said Weakley-Jones should include overtime in her budget.
The coroner said the pay structure was set up before she became coroner.
Failing to pay overtime can be costly for municipalities. The city of Louisville in the last decade has paid nearly $60 million to firefighters who had sued over miscalculated overtime pay.
The deputy coroners also get no sick time, no vacation and no hazard pay. They also drive their personal vehicles for coroner duties, at an average of more than 10,000 miles per year, though are reimbursed for mileage.
The deputies work 24-hour shifts every four days. Deputies swap shifts when they get sick or want to take some time off.
Weakley-Jones said the proposed budget cut would mean breaking up the four three-deputy teams, which would produce more overtime and scheduling conflicts related to vacations and illnesses.
Overtime, vacation and sick time probably would cost the office about $22,000, she said. Hazard pay would cost $78,000 per year. And she said the office already is understaffed. She would like to hire a secretary, which would cost about $30,160.
From 1977 to 2017, the coroner’s office had the same number of rotating deputies, nine, even though the county’s population had increased by more than 100,000.
Weakley-Jones, who took over the office in 2009, said that in 2017, finally, she received more funding to allow her to add two additional deputies. Cutting administrative positions allowed her to establish four three-deputy crews.
And now, just two years later, she is facing cuts again.
On duty 24-7
Deputy coroners rack up overtime every time they work two 24-hour shifts in one week — but it doesn’t end there.
Deputy Coroner Scott Russ told Insider that he rarely goes straight home at 9 a.m., when his shift ends, because he has to finish writing reports, contacting family members with preliminary autopsy results and helping them arrange funeral or cremation services.
When a family awaits news about the death of a loved one, the deputies can hardly just leave their shift and call the families four days later, he said.
Beyond peace of mind they get from the coroner’s office, family members also need death certificates to take care of financial, insurance and Social Security matters.
“They really need the death certificates,” Russ said. “You don’t want to wait two weeks.”
A three-deputy team handles, on average, 12 cases per 24-hour shift — but they don’t arrive in neat two-hour increments.
Russ, a former Louisville metro homicide detective and volunteer firefighter, said his team once received seven death calls in five minutes, which required the team to prioritize, usually depending on proximity.
Russ said the deputies respond to every homicide, fatal car crash, fatal work accident, some deaths in the hospital and even hospice, and even if a 90-year-old dies at home from apparent natural causes.
Even cases that appear obvious take an hour to 90 minutes for the deputies, Russ said, because they have to carefully examine for evidence of foul play. If an elderly person dies at home, the deputies still have to examine the body, talk to family, check the scene for evidence of foul play and review the deceased’s medication regimen.
Car crashes can take much longer. If a body is entrapped, for example, it generally is not removed until deputy coroners have completed their investigation. After the body is removed, coroner staff also may have to call for the body to be transported, which means they have to remain on the scene until the body is moved.
The deputies also have to respond to deaths if people get transported to University of Louisville Hospital, the region’s only Level 1 trauma center. Whether people are driven in from car accidents in Bullitt County or Southern Indiana or flown in from an explosion in Ohio, local coroners are responsible for the investigations.
Many deaths in hospitals or nursing homes may not require a call to the coroner’s office, but some do, Russ said. A patient may have been shot or injured in a car accident decades ago and may ultimately die as a result of those incidents, which means the coroner has to investigate.
Russ said deputies also have to drive their own cars because they can’t call an Uber or use PARC, especially if they have to get to a fatal accident at 2 a.m. in a blizzard. He said deputies try to reach death scenes within 30 minutes, though rush hour or inclement weather may delay them.
“There’s a lot to the coroner’s office that people don’t realize,” Russ said.
And, he said, deputies certainly have felt a rise in the number of local deaths in recent years.
When he started in the coroner’s office four years ago, he saw an overdose death about every one or two shifts, he said. Now, a three-person team sometimes gets six a day.
And when he worked as a detective in Louisville, the city saw about 75 homicides per year, but now it sees far more than 100.
“To me, it feels like it’s increased dramatically,” he said.
Bodies and bags
The rise in deaths doesn’t just increase the deputy coroners’ workload, it also automatically increases one of the most costly items in the coroner’s budget: the transportation of bodies.
Weakley-Jones contracts with an embalming service group to pick up and transport bodies to the morgue.
That cost goes up if the body count rises. And it goes up with body size. It also goes up if the body is partially decomposed.
The transportation services eat up about a quarter of the coroner’s $1 million budget.
A rising body county also causes other challenges unrelated to workload: The more bodies the office deals with, the higher the number of families who cannot afford a burial. That means the coroner incurs more costs for indigent burials. The program costs about $100,000 per year.
Chief Deputy Joann Farmer, who handles the program, said the community has no alternative but to pay for the burials.
“This is something that has to be done,” she said.
Last year, the coroner’s office handled 126 indigent burials. Fewer than 86 spaces remain in the Meadow View cemetery, at 11620 of Deering Road, which means the coroner’s office could run out of space as early as this year.
James, the council president, said he is in touch with the state, which has property adjacent to Meadow View, to see if the city can acquire it, though he did not have any details about the property’s size or price.
Weakley-Jones said beyond the staffing changes, she has cut costs by using stickers to cover up and reuse old envelopes and stationery. She also helps the metro police department find missing persons or skeletal remains by providing her cadaver dogs at no cost.
She said deputies also have to buy their own emergency lights, gun, ammunition and clothes, which often get contaminated. She has asked for bulletproof vests, and said she received discarded ones from LMPD.
“I cannot give up a deputy position … and do an adequate job for Jefferson County,” she said.
The mayor’s office told Insider via email: “Given the $35 million budget shortfall, driven largely by our increased pension costs and lack of new revenue, the budget plan includes cuts across the board. Nearly every city agency and department are impacted, along with all elected official’s offices, not just the coroner.”
“These are not cuts we want to make, but we have to have a balanced budget, and that means hard choices,” the mayor’s office said.