Changes to Louisiana law and backdated bills have caused the Webster Parish Police Jury to increase the coroner’s line item in their budget by approximately $150,000 in 2016.
“The amount we pay for commitments has drastically increased with the changes made at the beginning of the year,” said Ronda Carnahan, secretary and treasurer for the jury. “In addition to that, we have had some bills from 2015 for autopsies that were billed out this year.”
Carnahan said the billing delay might have been due to an inability for the coroner’s office to access files and paperwork that was seized by law enforcement in 2015 when a former deputy coroner was accused of malfeasance in office.
“With the reorganization of the coroner’s office, there was some catch-up that was needed,” Carnahan said. “Dr. (Max) Stell and his team have worked diligently to be good stewards of the office.”
The jury’s 2016 budgeted expenses for this line item was increased by $100,000 above the $150,000 that was budgeted in 2015. In 2016 the expenses have totaled $240,000. $185,000 is budgeted for 2017.
“I didn’t budget as much because I anticipate it leveling off,” she said. “It will be more than in 2015 because the cost of commitments has gone up, but it shouldn’t be as high because the billing from 2015 should all be accounted for now.
“Cost for commitments were going to go up because the law changed who gets billed when parish residents are committed,” Carnahan said. “Anytime someone with a Webster Parish address is sent for an evaluation or a coroner keeps a person in a hospital for mental health concerns, the jury gets a bill.”
In the past, if a committed person had a municipal address, such as living in the cities of Springhill or Minden, those entities were billed.
“Now the bills the municipalities were getting for commitments are the jurys responsibilities,” she said. “We also get bills from other parishes, such as Caddo and there seem to be several coming from Lincoln Parish as well.”
Deputy Coroner Allen Mosley said that is because if a person is taken into custody in an area outside of Webster Parish, but has a Webster Parish address, it is the responsibility of Webster to pay for the commitment.
“When we came into the office earlier this year, the law had already taken effect,” he said. “We have worked with the jury and others to get a better understanding of the office.”
Mosley said a common misconception is how the coroner’s office is funded.
“Many people think we are funded by the jury and we are not. They are among the sources that we receive revenue from, but we have our own budget,” he said. “We have an open book policy; we want to be transparent.”
Mosley said while the coroner’s office does not provide glamorous services, the work the office does is important to the community.
“We have an amazing team that will spend hours at a death site if needed. They do a lot of work for a nominal service fee,” he said. “We work to keep cost low and bill out as little as possible.”
Dr. Stell voluntarily took a 50 percent reduction in the coroner’s salary, getting paid $500 a month for his services rather than the $1,000 that was being paid.