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Coroner cases strain sheriff budget

George Mina said investigating deaths in Del Norte County is becoming almost a full-time job. Unfortunately, county budget constraints have kept the Sheriffs Department from adding another position to handle the caseload. (The Daily Triplicate /Stephen Corley).
George Mina said investigating deaths in Del Norte County is becoming almost a full-time job. Unfortunately, county budget constraints have kept the Sheriffs Department from adding another position to handle the caseload. (The Daily Triplicate /Stephen Corley).

By Kent Gray

Triplicate staff writer

Coroner cases are rising in Del Norte County, and the manpower to investigate them is being spread thin, according to the Del Norte County Sheriffs Department.

Coroners cases, which are handled through the sheriffs department, have nearly quadrupled in the past eight years.

The time will come when we will need someone full-time, said Chief Deputy Coroner George Mina. Actually, we are already there.

Mina said a position for a full-time investigator is unlikely because of the countys financial woes.

Very early in the budget process, the county asked that we do not ask for a new position because the budget didnt look that good, Mina said. So we attached a formal request to our budget this year. We will resubmit it again in the next budget year.

According to department records, Del Norte had 57 coroner cases in 1993. By 2000, that number had reached 203.

Its not going to be long before we have a coroner case a day, said Senior Coroner and Sheriff Jim Maready.

Mina said he thinks part of the increase is having Sutter Coast Hospitals 24-hour urgent care facility located in the county, which is the only facility of its kind between Eureka and Southern Oregon. Oregon deaths are also a factor in the caseload increase.

From 1993 to 1995, there were no coroner cases from Curry County. There were five cases in 1996 of Curry County residents, 17 cases in 1999, and 27 cases in 2000.

When asked if Curry County reimburses Del Norte for these cases, Mina said no.

There is no law that will provide for it; its not in the Health and Safety code, Mina said.

And heres the kicker: It doesnt matter if the death is a DOA (death on arrival at the hospital), Mina added. Its still considered a Del Norte County death because the ambulance drivers cant pronounce death.

Of Californias 58 counties, 41 combine coroner offices with the county sheriff departments, according to the California State Association of Counties. The remainder are either independently elected offices or are appointed by county officials.

Mina said the costs associated with running coroner investigations are generally kept low, mainly because of the relationship the agency has with the medical community and through a contract with Wiers Mortuary.

The coroners office spent $40,580 in 1993 investigating 53 cases, in contrast to $39,500 in 2000 investigating 198 cases. The average amount spent during that period dropped from about $766 to $200 per case.

It is unclear how long the agency can keep these costs down, especially when new and expensive scientific tests become necessary.

For example, if a decomposed body has to be identified, a DNA test is often the only way.

Whenever we have to do a DNA test, the cost is approximately $3,000, Mina said. But its not always only the deceased that needs to be tested. If you have to test the mom and dad too, that can be $9,000.

Although the arrival of Pelican Bay State Prison in the county has also increased the number of cases, Mina said the state picks up the tab for those.

The state reimburses the county for anything we do connected with that institution, Mina said. Aside from costs, though, any investigation takes time away from other duties.

One additional factor Mina cites for the increase in cases is a growing retiree community in both Del Norte and Curry counties. Although many of these cases are eventually attributed to natural causes, Mina said they must be investigated if they fall under Californias Health and Safety code.

California lists 21 different circumstances connected with a death that must be investigated by a coroner. In accordance with this list, most cases fall into a coroners jurisdiction, according to Mina.

Generally, cases that do not demand coroner resources are those where the deceased had a documented medical problem and the death was attended by a physician.

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