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Coroner Consolidation Costs County 

Supes say service more important, savings may materialize

The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously on March 10 to approve an almost $15,000 pay bump for Sheriff Mike Downey to compensate him for the extra duties he's taken on since the Coroner-Public Administrator Office was consolidated under his office on Feb. 1.

But Downey said he wants to make clear, he didn't ask for the raise that brought his base salary up to $163,968.

"This is compensation for taking on a new agency," he said. "I'm not asking for a pay raise, I'm asking to be compensated for taking on a whole new department."

Including benefits, the 10-percent pay increase will cost the county a total of $19,569 annually, according to a staff report, which made some simplistic and questionable claims regarding the projected budget savings associated with consolidation. The item passed after less than 15 minutes of conversation from the board, during which all said the move to consolidate the office was about providing better service to the public and helping staff, not budget savings.

But talk of potential budget savings has long peppered the conversations that surrounded whether to consolidate one of the state's last independently elected coroner positions — which Humboldt County has had for more than a century — and was one of the focal points of the staff report for the board's March 10 meeting.

Former Coroner Dave Parris announced back in November, four months after being elected to another four-year term, that he would be retiring effective Jan. 30 (For more on Parris' reasoning, read "Last Rites," Sept. 25). In the announcement, Parris recommended that his office be consolidated with that of the sheriff, saying his office was chronically understaffed, leaving employees overworked. In short order, the supervisors voted unanimously to follow Parris' recommendation, noting that 48 of California's 58 counties had consolidated their coroners' offices and that the move would come with an anticipated budget savings for the county.

Since the offices consolidated officially Feb. 1, the coroner's duties have been under the direct supervision of Sheriff's Sgt. Ernie Stewart, who's serving as chief deputy coroner. The supervisors also funded a deputy sheriff position to help staff the office.

The staff report notes that, prior to consolidation, the county funded the coroner-public administrator position at about $8,715 a month. With the new deputy position funded at about $4,887 a month and Downey's bump of $1,242, the county's still operating at net savings, the staff report says. If those numbers were the only additional costs, the county would, in fact, see a savings of $2,586 a month.

But, the staff report leaves out a few things — most notably, Stewart's new role in the coroner's office. While Stewart's salary was already on the books and isn't a new expenditure, he does represent a new person in the coroner's office and one less in the sheriff's office, which Downey and others have also lamented as understaffed. According to, Stewart made just over $80,000 in salary in 2013, not including overtime pay ($22,800) and benefits ($32,400). That's a $6,671 per month salary.

Additionally, there are benefits for the new deputy that, according to Transparent California, will run roughly $28,000 annually, or $2,333 per month.

So, it seems a more accurate accounting of the monthly costs of the consolidation are $7,220 for the deputy alone. Then there's Stewart's $9,371 per month in benefits and salary. And now Downey's monthly increase of $1,630. That brings the coroner's office's additional monthly expenditures to $18,221.

To be fair, the county wasn't comparing apples to oranges. The monthly salary the staff report says Parris was taking home — $8,715 — didn't include benefits either. In 2013, according to Transparent California, Parris got about $28,250 in benefits, bringing his monthly cost to the county to $11,069.

Instead of saving money, as was billed, one could argue the county will actually be paying an extra $7,152 a month to carry out its post-consolidation coroner functions. And those are just the immediate ongoing costs, not taking into account the one-time $26,700 allocated for pre-consolidation training or the long-term pension impacts (if Downey finishes his current term, this pay bump will increase his pension about $13,000 a year, according to the Journal's calculations).

Downey has said he plans to bring in a coroner's crew from outside the county to investigate if any of his officers are involved in a shooting to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. It's unclear how much that would cost.

Now, one can argue that the coroner's office was woefully understaffed, as Parris did, and that the very reason for consolidation was to bring in extra help, like the new deputy to enter the call rotation with the three existing deputy coroners and Stewart to take over administrative duties. That's essentially two people stepping in to do Parris' job and help out elsewhere, probably a welcome addition to a stretched department.

And there's a chance this pencils out in the end. In 2013, the office's three deputy coroners — Charles Van Buskirk, Trevor Enright and Roy Horton — combined to earn more than $45,000 in overtime pay. If having a sheriff's deputy in the rotation answering field calls and Stewart handling the administration adds efficiency, maybe those overtime hours will come down.

Each of the supervisors said they believed these points to be true before approving Downey's raise on March 10.

Downey said technological efficiencies that came as a part of the consolidation are already yielding some results, and he expects to see overtime hours come down. "We've been able to spread the workload out," he said, adding that he's also considering revising work schedules in an effort to cut down on after-hours calls. "The overtime issue should be more manageable now," Downey said. "We're not waking up people in the middle of the night as we have in the past."

One can argue that Downey is taking on extra responsibilities and should be paid accordingly. The county staff report notes that the compensation plan approved by the board for elected officials provides a "process for evaluating additional compensation for department heads based on changes in responsibility." It could even be argued that the 10 percent bump is a bargain, as a Journal analysis of similar sized counties back in September found that sheriff-coroners made an average of about $26,000 more than their sheriff counterparts.

But one could also argue that the county staff report was at best oversimplifying and at worst misleading when it stated: "Elimination of the coroner-public administrator position saved $8,715 monthly. On Feb. 10, your board approved an additional allocation for a Deputy Sheriff I/II, which will cost approximately $4,887 monthly at top step. Even with additional compensation for the sheriff, there is still a net savings to the county through the consolidation of offices."

The board's March 10 meeting was markedly different than one a few weeks earlier in which it bickered over whether to give Interim County Counsel Carolyn Ruth a pay increase while she holds the post. Supervisors expressed concerns over "pension spiking" and long-term costs. Almost to a member, the board said the decision about Downey's pay increase was different. And many of the particulars of Ruth and Downey's situations are different, though both saw potential pay increases come before the board in the twilight of their careers due to unforeseen circumstances. (Ruth wound up getting half the raise requested on her behalf.)

And where was Parris for this discussion about his predecessor's compensation less than 40 days after his official retirement from county employment? Presumably he was at his post-retirement, full-time job at the new federal courthouse in McKinleyville, where he works for a third-party staffing firm under the direction of the U.S. Marshals Service.

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