HELENA-Lewis and Clark County will combine its sheriff and coroner’s offices, starting in 2019.
County commissioners approved consolidating the two offices during their meeting Tuesday morning. Commissioners Susan Good Geise and Andy Hunthausen supported the proposal, while Commissioner Jim McCormick voted against it.
Leaders say their plan is for the sheriff to officially take over the coroner’s duties. Current coroner Bryan Backeberg will take a new appointed position under the sheriff, and will likely continue most of his current duties. The other two employees at the coroner’s office, a deputy coroner and an administrative assistant, will also join the sheriff’s office.
Supporters said combining the sheriff and coroner’s office will improve efficiency.
“There are other counties – 38 to be precise – who do this, and they have done it successfully,” said Geise.
Once the offices are consolidated, sheriff’s deputies will be able to train as coroners to assist with those responsibilities. Backeberg said that additional support could make it easier to handle his workload. Currently, only he and his deputy are able to conduct death investigations.
“At times, it is overwhelming when you have two of us, one leaves on vacation or training, and then it leaves one behind for a county this size,” he said.
Backeberg said he is satisfied that the plan will maintain jobs for his staff, but that he’s concerned that, over time, a smaller share of the budget could be set aside for coroner’s duties once they are under the sheriff’s office.
Sheriff Leo Dutton said he did not ask for the consolidation, but that he was already making plans for how to prepare for it. He said he is pleased that training deputy coroners could lighten the burden for current employees.
“It’s been woefully understaffed for many years, and I hope to change that,” Dutton said.
The consolidation will take effect in January 2019, when county officials begin their next term. Candidates will start filing next month to run for the combined office of sheriff-coroner in the 2018 elections.
Leaders say they don’t believe the change will have a major effect on the county budget.
“We estimate the financial consequences of consolidating this office to be neutral,” said Nancy Everson, the county finance director.
Backeberg would likely receive a slightly lower salary, since he would no longer be an elected official. The other coroner’s office employees would have essentially the same pay. Deputies who act as coroners would receive an additional stipend.
At this time, commissioners aren’t increasing the sheriff’s salary, though they have the authority to do so after adding the coroner’s duties to the office. State law requires deputy sheriffs’ pay to be a certain percentage of the sheriff’s pay, so any increase would have to be passed down through the ranks. McCormick said giving the sheriff a raise of just $2,000 could require the county to pay an additional $100,000 to deputies.
Everson said leaders had considered whether additional pay for the sheriff would be considered separate from the base salary – and therefore not trigger an increase for deputies. However, she said the county attorney’s office suggested that could leave Lewis and Clark County open to a lawsuit that they would be unlikely to win.
Geise said the question of how to compensate the sheriff can be left until the spring, when the county compensation board will make recommendations on all countywide elected officials’ salaries. She said that would give leaders more time to research how other counties with consolidated sheriff-coroner’s offices handled the issue.
“As a policy, should these offices be consolidated?” Geise asked. “In my mind, that answer is yes. The compensation thing is related, but it’s separate.”
McCormick said combining the offices without making a decision on the sheriff’s pay was “kicking the can down the road.” He said he had been willing to consider consolidation, but decided it wasn’t necessary because Backeberg was doing a good job improving his office’s operations.
“I’ve come to my conclusion that the current office is functioning properly,” said McCormick.
Hunthausen said he struggled with the decision. He said he shared McCormick’s concerns about increasing the sheriff’s salary, but that combining the offices would probably be more efficient in the long-term.
“I think it’s outdated to have a partisan coroner’s race in our community,” Hunthausen said. “I don’t know that that serves the public that well.”