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Co. Move Toward Medical Examiner Model Rejected

Proponents of converting Marinette County’s Coroner Model to a Medical Examiner Model fashion like Brown County’s system were dealt a major setback at the Tuesday, May 7 meeting of the Marinette County Executive Committee.

Last October, the Executive had directed County Administrator Ellen Sorensen to investigate such a move. At the March 7 meeting of the Executive, Sorensen presented a document that highlighted three possible scenarios: 1) Stay with the current Coroner System; 2) Enter into an arrangement with Brown and Door counties to develop a regional Medical Examiner System; and 3) Enter into an arrangement with Fond du Lac, Brown and Door Counties to develop a wider Regional Medical Examiner System.

According to Wisconsin State Statute 979.01, each county in the state can choose either the Coroner Model or the Medical Examiner Model.

The benefit Sorensen saw in scenarios two and three was that there would be access to a board certified forensic pathologist who could also testify at a trial, if needed.

Back at the March meeting, Supervisor Ken Keller spoke very much in favor of either of the last two scenarios because of what he saw as liability issues for the County. Keller also claimed that the costs with any of the three scenarios were essentially the same.

Unfortunately at the March meeting, current County Coroner George Smith was not present. He was asked to speak at the May meeting.

Smith stated that 43 counties in the state have Coroner Systems, with 29 counties having a Medical Examiner Systems. Four of those with the Medical Examiner System have a Board Certified Pathologist on staff.

Smith pointed out from his experience there are pluses and minuses to each system that must be weighed when choosing.

A big difference is that a Coroner is an elected position, while a Medical Examiner is an appointed position. Another difference is that anybody can run for the Coroner position, which Medical Examiners tend to be subject to the qualifications set by the County Executive or County Board.

Smith also noted that higher fees across the board seem to be charged in counties that have a Medical Examiner. Usually those fees are paid by either the county or the family. When it comes to autopsies, Smith said that Marinette County has been in a pool of counties that receive a special rate St. Vincent Hospital in Green Bay.

Smith disagreed with some of the points in the Sorensen presentation at the March meeting, especially when it comes to liability issues and the use of a Board Certified Forensic Pathologist. Smith hinted that Oconto County may have gone to the Medical Examiner Model because of some problems that developed with the person in the position of Coroner and not with the model itself.

Later, Smith stated in his estimation, jumping to a Medical Examiner Model would ultimately cost the county $40,000 to $60,000 more per year, and maybe up to $100,000 more.

Sorensen countered with a draft budget she developed for comparison. In the final analysis she concluded that the County could save about $5,000 per year by using a Medical Examiner model.

Smith replied that joining either the Brown County model or the expanded Brown/Door/Fond du Lac model would mean much less local control and many hidden fees and higher costs for residents.

Keller began his support of a Medical Examiner Model by pointing to problems he saw with the Coroner being an elected position, namely that a person running for the office has to declare a political party affiliation. He went on to present information from his own personal research, concluding that the Medical Examiner Model was the better way to go. Keller contested Smith’s numbers, but said that even if it’s a little bit more expensive, it would be well worth it.

Commenting on Keller’s ‘political party’ remark, Sheriff Jerry Sauve rejected such an accusation. He went on to say that law enforcement is not concerned about either model as long as they get what they need when a death occurs.

Keller then moved to recommend to the County Board that the County establish a Medical Examiner position, to be effective at the end of the Coroner’s term on Dec. 31, 2015. It was seconded by Supervisor Connie Seefeldt.

During the discussion phase, several Committee members commented that they still were not clear on the exact costs of any of the models, like they had asked at the March meeting.

When the vote on the motion was taken, it was defeated by four in favor and seven against.

In other matters, Human Resources Director Jennifer Holtger updated the Committee on the progress of the county’s wage study being conducted through WIPFLI, LLC.

Holtger reviewed the history of the study and what the county has done in preparing the necessary documents for the company. While the initial idea was to whittle the number of different job descriptions down to about 30, it appears the final number will be about 60. The reason for this is that a number of jobs in the county are tied to rules outside the county because these jobs are funded by grant money.

Holtger noted the county has a review team who has been quite active in working with definitions, categories and position requirements, and trying to tweak them to be more in-line with WIPFLI standards. By way of example, she pointed out the county currently has more education/experience requirements for the Jail Administrator than it does for the Director of Health and Human Services.

When the Review Team has finished their work, the fruits of that labor will be sent to WIPFLI who will then chart the results and come up with a final pay study.

Sorensen added the goal is still to get the results back in July so that changes can be passed to the Personnel Committee and then the County Board for final approval, and included in work on the 2014 budget.

Information Services Director Larry Schultz and Communications Director Terry Zimmerman addressed the Committee on the needed upgrade to the 911 telephone system. The current system was installed in 2007 and the equipment has been used 24/7 for the past 6 years. It’s getting old. Also, because of the age of the hardware, the software can no longer be updated. New software is available, but it cannot run on the old hardware.

Schultz reported that he had checked on the cost of a total refresh of the hardware which came to $185,000. A total new system (hardware and software) would run in the $250,000 to $280,000 range. However, in checking with the system vendor, they would be able to perform a major upgrade of both for about $150,000. This upgrade would include a module that allows for receipt of media/text 911 calls as soon as a national standard is established and the capability is implement by telephone/cell phone carriers.

A review of the Capital Improvement Plan of the county calls for a new 911 System in 2014, but it appears that hardware failures are becoming more prevalent as the system ages.

Zimmerman added when the current system was installed, there was plenty of grant money available to pay for the entire project. That money came from that special charge that everyone still sees on their phone bills. The Doyle administration seized that money for the state’s general fund when he was governor. It appears that the current state administration has continued that practice instead of using it for which it was intended.

This matter was presented to Committee for the sake of information, but County Board Chairman Vilas Schroeder stated he would prefer the project be tackled this year yet.

The proper procedure would be to take it the Law Enforcement Committee and then to the Finance Committee first before going to County Board. No suggestion was given as to where the money for the project would come from.

In a similar vein, Schultz updated the Committee on the status of the video conferencing equipment for the Law Enforcement and Court System. There has been a major system failure in one of the courtrooms. The failure seems to affect the audio especially. Schultz went on to say that the entire conferencing equipment is nearing the end of its useful life.

The major concern is for safety and security. With the current near-capacity population at the jail, transporting every inmate back and forth for every court event would pose major problems. With a video conferencing system that is working properly, many of the court appearances can be done via video with the inmate appearing in a secure room at the jail.

County Corporation Counsel Gale Mattison added the system failures also affect other uses and users of the system as well. She recounted some problems she has had with the entire system.

Schultz estimated that it will cost about $175,000 to replace the current system and make it stable, which he felt was the best route to pursue.

No action was taken, but Schroeder said he had asked it to be placed on the agenda so that the Committee could be informed about the major concerns and the equally major costs that are possible.

The Committee approved and forwarded to the County Board a substantial document that repeals and recreates Chapter 24-Records Retention of the Marinette County Code of Ordinances. The reason for the change to the ordinance is because the current ordinance does not deal with electronic records. This corrects that deficiency.

Mattison updated the Committee on the various and sundry things taking place with the legal challenges to Act 10. She said that everything is still in limbo and chaotic. There are several independent lawsuits and several different levels of courts right now. The County has been abiding by Act 10 as passed by the legislature, and yet is still doing its best to treat all employees fairly.

Mattison commented that she was not sure if some of the unions have recertified or not.

In a final presentation, Sorensen said another one of the goals given her by the Executive Committee was to reduce operating costs for 2014 by 10 percent.

The presentation showed that the county is currently operating in what she called a “structural deficit.” Basically, Marinette County is spending more than it receives in tax revenue, and has been doing so for a number of years. Sorensen and Finance Director Pat Kass differed on exactly how much that structural deficit was, but it appears to be right around $1.7 million.

How this structural deficit can exist when the county has passed balanced budgets over the past several years and has seen some departments actually build up substantial fund balances, Sorensen did not explain.

To fix this structural deficit problem, Sorensen presented strategies to increase revenues and/or reduce expenditures.

Under decreasing expenditures, Sorensen talked about possibly regionalizing some services with other counties, municipalities and even school districts. Another idea was outsourcing certain services other counties or private endeavors. She also talked about “in-sourcing,” which is things like using the work restitution program to do things like landscaping, lawn care; or having the Highway Department maintenance department perform work on Sheriff’s vehicles or motor pool vehicles.

Another area in which to save money was entitled “Operational Drill Down.” This category included things like paying all county bills by direct electronic deposit (could save county about $40,000 a year), changes to bring about a lowering of health insurance costs, more paperless initiatives, pooling with other entities for office supplies/furniture to receive a better price, and several other ideas.

To fund capital improvement projects, Sorensen suggested possibly bonding for major road projects.

To increase revenue, the presentation included things like a county sales tax, and adding a forester so that timber revenues could be increased to the maximum encouraged by the state acreage recommendations.

In total, Sorensen saw a possibility of reducing the county budget by about $1.1 million.

An entry in the spreadsheet on reducing the deficit included one line that elicited a great deal of discussion. Under decreasing expenditures, Sorensen had listed removing $171,236 from the budget for the Marinette County Elderly Services (MCES) organization. Several Supervisors and even Pam Mueller Johnson, Director of MCES, spoke adamantly in favor of retaining the organization’s current status.


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