Counties' spending vastly different on coroners' budgets
DIXON – The Whiteside County coroner’s office handles many more deaths than Lee County’s, but Lee County spends more for its office.
In the past fiscal year, Whiteside County dealt with 70 percent more deaths than Lee County – 478 to 281.
At the same time, Lee County spends $115,000 a year on its coroner’s office, while Whiteside County’s budget is $107,000.
Whiteside County’s population is 60 percent greater than Lee County’s.
Ogle County, which handled 344 deaths in the past fiscal year, spent the most in the Sauk Valley for its coroner’s office – $177,000.
Ogle County employs a coroner and three full-time deputy coroners, one of whom also is the office manager, Coroner Louis Finch said. In Lee County, the office has a coroner; a full-time employee who is the office coordinator and a deputy coroner; and three other deputy coroners.
Whiteside County has a “very part-time” secretary and three deputy coroners, Coroner Joe McDonald said.
Some coroners consider themselves full-time because they are on call, but they aren’t required to keep detailed logs of their hours. Most coroners also are funeral directors.
Coroners are responsible for handling deaths resulting from accidents, suicides or homicides. They also investigate deaths where the circumstances are mysterious, or those without a recent attending physician.
Official balks at coroner’s salary
Recently, the issue of the Lee County coroner’s salary came up during a County Board meeting.
The Lee County coroner makes $40,000 a year. The salaries are $44,580 and $57,500 in Whiteside and Ogle, respectively. Ogle is slightly larger than Whiteside.
The Lee County Board voted to increase Coroner Jesse Partington’s pay $250 a year each of the next 2 years. He won’t get any raises the following 2 years.
Partington, a Republican, is running unopposed for coroner in November’s election. Counties must decide on pay before an elected official’s term starts.
During the board meeting, member John Ferrone, R-Dixon, questioned why the county was paying a part-time employee $40,000.
“I have great difficulty paying a part-time job $40,000-plus. I have nothing against the coroner,” Ferrone said.
Member Rick Ketchum, D-Amboy, said the coroner is on call around the clock.
Ferrone responded that deputy coroners respond to deaths when the coroner cannot.
Marty Meyer, the Lee County coroner’s office coordinator, estimated that Partington responded to 210 of the 281 deaths – or about 75 percent – last fiscal year, which was Dec. 1, 2010, to Nov. 30, 2011. Partington also is a local funeral director.
County Board member Ed Fritts, R-Dixon, opposed the raises because of the county’s tight budget.
“We continue to give raises. When will we start holding the line?” he asked.
The board, however, voted 13-10 to increase Partington’s pay.
Partington said he didn’t know why Lee County’s budget was higher than Whiteside’s.
He said he didn’t think Ferrone understood what his office does.
“Not once has the man come to my office to see what this office entails,” he said. “Until he does, I think he is out of line.”
Partington said that even though the position is part-time, he works full-time.
“Just because I don’t sit in my office doesn’t mean I’m not a full-time employee,” he said.
In 2008, then-Coroner Richard Schilling, who was paid slightly more than $30,000 a year, urged a pay increase for the coroner. He said the county had regularly given raises to other elected officials, but not for him.
“I don’t think that’s fair,” he said at the time. “I think it’s on the verge of discrimination.”
He worked at the coroner’s office for 40 years, in addition to managing Preston-Schilling Funeral Home in Dixon. He didn’t run again in 2008. His employee, Partington, a Republican like his boss, beat Democrat Patrick Jones Jr.
Ogle coroner got big raises
In 2008, the Ogle County Board decided on big increases to the coroner’s salary over the next 4 years. In 2009, Finch’s pay increased from $45,000 to $50,000. He received $2,500 increases each of the following 3 years, totaling $57,500.
The board voted 21-3 for the increases.
Member Maggie Nye said during the 2008 meeting that the coroner’s job was part-time and that granting the raises was “unconscionable.”
Member Mel Messer, a former sheriff, disagreed.
“Public officials in this county have been underpaid for years,” he said. “We’re way under what other counties pay,” adding that the coroner works around the clock.
Interviewed recently, Finch and County Board Chairman Jim Barnes didn’t have an explanation for why the Ogle County’s coroner’s office was much more expensive.
Messer said this week that the Ogle coroner’s office always has “worked their butts off. They do a good job for us.”
“The sheriff’s office depends on the coroner’s office. You can do the best police work, but if you don’t have good information from the coroner, it doesn’t work,” he said. “Are the other coroner’s offices doing the work they’re supposed to do?”
Finch said his office is constantly helping the public, adding that his deputies “are barely making minimum wage.”
“Months down the line, families calls us and we’re kind of a grief therapist,” he said. “I don’t know what other counties do, and I don’t care what they do. This is what I feel is important. I do things differently. This is what works for this county.”
Recently, the Ogle County Board voted on raises for the coroner, among others. He gets $1,000 more on Dec. 1 and $1,500 raises in 2014 and 2015.
Ogle County may have more money to spend than other counties. Annually, it gets up to $3 million from host fees for landfills, and this year it will receive $3.4 million in tax revenue from the Byron nuclear plant.
Bureau ups coroner’s salary
Recently, the Bureau County Board voted to raise the salary for its coroner, which is becoming an elected position, from $30,363 to $32,663, along with a 2 percent increase in each of the 4 years of the coroner’s term.
Bureau County, which handled 266 deaths last fiscal year, has about the same population as Lee County.
In March, Bureau County voters decided to make the coroner’s position an elected one, as it is in most counties.
Official: Nothing part time being a coroner
Steve Nonn, president of the Illinois Coroners and Medical Examiners Association, has a firm position on whether coroners are part- or full-time.
“There is no part-time when it comes to being a coroner. You’re on call 24-7. You have to respond to a death scene. You can’t say that you have a funeral to attend to,” said Nonn, the coroner for Madison County, east of St. Louis.
County treasurers and clerks don’t have to work nights, weekends or holidays.
“Coroners have to alter their personal lives to make sure they can respond to deaths in a proper manner,” Nonn said. “People call coroners part-time to legitimize paying them less. That’s an excuse.”
What they're spending
Here are comparisons of the coroner's offices in the area:
Coroner's salary: $32,633
Annual coroner's budget: $65,763
Deaths handled during 2010-11 fiscal year: 266
Coroner's salary: $14,000
Annual coroner's budget: $24,600
Deaths handled during 2010-11 fiscal year: 55
Coroner's salary: $40,000
Annual coroner's budget: $114,621
Deaths handled during 2010-11 fiscal year: 281
Coroner's salary: $57,500
Annual coroner's budget: $177,704
Deaths handled during 2010-11 fiscal year: 344
Coroner's salary: $44,580
Annual coroner's budget: $107,000
Deaths handled during 2010-11 fiscal year: 478
Source: County coroner's offices