Supervisors up budget for coroner

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 3, 2001

Death may be a natural part of life, but it can mean big bucks for Adams County taxpayers.

So far during the fiscal year – which began in October – the Adams County coroner’s office has spent twice as much as was budgeted for the entire year. The office was budgeted for $6,500 but has spent $12,658 in autopsy fees and other medical expenses.

The Adams County Board of Supervisors voted Monday to give Adams County Coroner James Lee more money to meet the extra costs, although supervisors first questioned the increase. Supervisors did not provide him with the total of $12,000 he had requested. Supervisors gave Lee just enough to cover the expenses the office has already incurred but did not give the office any extra money. Supervisors did not decide what to do about future funding.

&uot;I don’t understand the reason for all those autopsies he has performed,&uot; said Supervisor Sammy Cauthen.

Lee, who has been in office since January 2000, blamed the increase on four autopsies from last fiscal year not billed until this year. He also said Adams County has had an increase in crime and unnatural fatalities recently, including two murders during 2001, several cases of sudden infant death syndrome and two cases in which officials recovered skeletal remains.

&uot;It just seems like an awful lot of autopsies that we never had in the past,&uot; Cauthen said.

Cauthen asked if it was possible to get a doctor’s opinion on a death instead of always ordering an autopsy.

Lee said he does work with a local doctor, but the state recommends autopsies in certain cases.

Some deaths in which an autopsy may be needed include deaths which occur under violent or unnatural circumstances, sudden or unexpected deaths in jail or police custody, unexpected or unexplained deaths of infants or children, and any death in which the manner – natural, accidental, suicide or homicide – is in question.

Lee estimates the county has conducted, since October, 10 to 12 autopsies, each costing about $950, including transportation of the body to Jackson.

It is difficult to budget for these cases because it is impossible to predict them, Lee said.

When an unusual death occurs, Lee said has to use his own discretion.

&uot;I have to make my best judgement on whether the autopsy is in the best interest of the public,&uot; Lee said.

By ordering the autopsies, Adams County can avoid liability and it can help the family of the deceased person, Lee said.

&uot;The family deserves to know what happened to their loved one,&uot; he said.

Lee said he believes he haa made the best decisions in ordering various autopsies.

&uot;I’ll do it again if I have to,&uot; he said.

Lee said if he, the Adams County Sheriff’s Department or the Natchez Police Department has doubts about a person’s cause of death, he always orders an autopsy, even though he is also trying to cut expenses.

&uot;I’m really streamlining the people as best as I can to cut a dollar,&uot; Lee said.

For example, Lee said he did not order DNA testing on human bones found on the riverfront this year or on that of a human skull found last month off Cemetery Road.

He also did not order autopsies on two other recent cases – a county employee who died of a heart attack and another man who died recently in a public hotel room.

Several supervisors were concerned about the added expenses caused by the autopsies.

&uot;I think we’re having an awful lot of them and the money is really running up,&uot; said Supervisor Virginia Salmon.

Salmon said she would have to study the law in reference to autopsies to determine what should be done.

Supervisor Darryl Grennell said he did not have a problem with the money Lee has spent to date because he though the procedures were justified.

&uot;We’re all, as stewards of the county, concerned about monies that are spent, but if there is a justification for it I really don’t have a problem with it at all,&uot; Grennell said.

Lee said he understands the supervisors’ concerns about money but also hopes they will have faith in him not to spend money without reason.

&uot;I can’t predict crime. I can’t predict when someone is going to die suspiciously. I can’t predict when somebody’s going to be murdered,&uot; Lee said.