(HELENA) The Lewis and Clark County Commission is moving forward with its proposal to combine the county sheriff and coroner’s offices.
At their meeting Tuesday morning, commissioners approved a resolution of intention to consolidate the offices. They also scheduled a public hearing on the issue for their Dec. 19 meeting, where they could make a final decision.
According to the resolution, sheriff’s deputies would be trained as coroners to help with the additional duties. The consolidation would take effect in January of 2019.
Commissioner Susan Good Geise said bringing the coroner’s duties under the umbrella of the sheriff’s office could improve efficiency, especially when the coroner’s workload is heavy.
“It seemed to be the time that we should take a hard look at perhaps changing the way the county does business, to modernize that particular office,” she said. “After examination of other counties, this was the route that we think we should go.”
State law gives commissioners the power to consolidate county offices at their discretion. According to the Montana Association of Counties, 38 of Montana’s 56 counties have already combined their sheriff and coroner, and several more are considering doing so this month. Geise said she met with leaders from several of those counties this week to learn more about how they handled the transition.
In Lewis and Clark County, leaders say they’ve discussed combining the sheriff and coroner’s offices for years. Over the last few weeks, they say they’ve had initial discussions with Sheriff Leo Dutton and Coroner Bryan Backeberg about the issue.
Commissioner Jim McCormick said the suggestion of consolidating the offices wasn’t a reflection on how they are currently operating.
“You are very effective, and your staff is top-notch,” McCormick told Backeberg during Tuesday’s meeting. “You have my highest regard for the work that you do.”
However, Geise said now is an appropriate time to reconsider how the county organizes its offices. Longtime county coroner Mickey Nelson, who was elected to 11 terms, died in 2016. The commission appointed Backeberg, then deputy coroner, to finish Nelson’s last term and serve through the end of 2018.
If commissioners do want to consolidate the positions, they must decide before next month. On Jan. 11, candidates will begin filing to run for county sheriff and coroner in next year’s elections.
When the commission makes its final decision, they may not have a full outline for what a consolidated sheriff-coroner’s office will look like. Geise noted that the consolidation would not take effect for more than a year and said the county would likely finalize the details of the combined department’s structure during that time.
The Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s Office currently has 87 employees, including 47 sworn law enforcement officers. The coroner’s office has three full-time employees.