Leader Blues

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

TOP STORY > >Coroners overworked

Leader staff writer

Fatalities from motorcycle wrecks, freak accidents and suicides have increased the workload for Lonoke County Coroner Sherry Stracener, who says for reasons that are unexplained, she has worked more deaths in 2008 than in any other year.

From January through October, Stracener said she worked 12 suicides and that number doesn’t include those who died in Pulaski County after they were transported to hospitals there.

In that same time period, there were 11 traffic deaths, five of them in Cabot in a two-month period.

Sgt. Brent Lucas, spokesman for the Cabot Police Department, points out that before the beginning of the school year, there were no traffic-related deaths in Cabot for 2008, and then they came back-to-back beginning with a motorcycle-pedestrian collision in a crosswalk on Hwy. 38 and ending with a rollover accident near Walmart.

“It’s not the traffic volume,” Lucas said. “That has been steady for a couple of years. I think it’s just been a fluke.”

Stracener, who has served as county coroner for more than a decade, said her investigations into the suicides lead her to believe that the economy and personal relationships gone awry were contributing factors to most.

“It was the economy and family problems,” she said. “People can’t pay their bills, or with the teenagers, it was girlfriend or boyfriend problems.”

But Stracener isn’t called out only for wrecks and suicides; she goes out for all unattended deaths, such as nursing home deaths and hospice deaths, about 300 a year.

The paperwork is almost overwhelming, she said. And that paperwork is all stored in her home or in sheds. Although the coroner is an elected county official, Stracener has no office except at her home. And except for the part-time secretary that was included in the 2009 Lonoke County budget and the contract help for times when she is not available that was included in the 2008 and 2009 budgets, she works alone. And she does it all for about $20,000 a year, plus benefits.

But where she is not alone is in her frustration over the lack of understanding the public and other elected officials have for the work she does. Garland County Coroner Stuart Smedley, treasurer of the Arkansas Coroners Association, said like
Stracener, he wants them all to know that a coroner is the only county official who is always on call.

“It’s a time-consuming job if it’s done right,” Smedley said. “We live in a CSI (crime scene investigation) world. People see that on television and they expect me to know what I’m doing. To do it correctly, it is more than a full-time job. We are the only elected officials who work 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

In county government, there are salary tiers, he said. The county judge and county sheriff are the highest paid and make about the same. They are followed by the clerks, treasurer and collectors, who make about the same.

“And then there’s the coroner, and in most counties, it is almost sad what they make,” Smedley said. “In some counties, they make as little as $3,000 a year.”

Although county quorum courts could raise the pay, most have felt it was not necessary, said Pope County Coroner Leonard Krout, president of the Arkansas Coroners Association. An entry in the handbook provided by the Arkansas Association of Counties defines the position as part-time.

The coroners association has changed that definition. Krout said it will take a change in state law to require counties to pay county coroners at least as much as they pay county clerks, assessors, treasurers and other middle-tier elected officials.

Until coroners are paid a living wage, many will be untrained and unprepared for the work they are expected to do, Krout said.

Dr. Gene Shelby, the former Garland County coroner who now serves as state representative in House Dist. 25, is trying to pass a bill to increase salaries, Krout said.

The mantra among coroners who want the pay to fit the work is “you can’t serve two masters.” If coroners must work at other jobs to make a living, they will and their work as coroner will suffer. They won’t attend classes on crime-scene investigations.

They won’t learn to take into considerations the medications a person was using to determine a likely cause of their death.

In Arkansas, the only requirement to be a coroner is to be an adult and receive more than 50 percent of the votes in a county election. But Krout said if a state law required counties to pay coroners as much as other elected officials, those counties would have a right to expect their coroners to get the training they need for their jobs.

“Coroners need to learn how to investigate deaths,” he said.