Rock County considers transition to medical examiner

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Frank Schultz
Friday, February 28, 2014

JANESVILLE—Rock County could end up with a medical examiner, or it could form a partnership with Dane County instead.

That's the thinking of county officials as they look forward to the planned conversion from a coroner's office to a professional medical examiner starting in 2015, said County Administrator Craig Knutson

Meanwhile, the governor has decided not to appoint a coroner to fill in until a medical examiner is in place.

Jenifer Keach stepped down from her coroner post last November. Chief Deputy Coroner Lou Smit has been running the office since then.

The county had planned to transition from a coroner to a medical examiner when Keach's term ended in January 2015.

The governor's appointments committee considered four applications to replace Keach, including Smit's, and initially said it would make a decision in about a month's time.

“The governor has chosen not to make an appointment,” spokesman Tom Evenson said in an email to The Gazette this week.

“In the meantime, there is an acting coroner in place for the county,” Evenson wrote, referring to Smit.

The county is discussing with Dane County the possibility of sharing services, but no decision has been made, Knutson said.

Rock County's autopsies have been performed in Dane County for many years.

If the decision were to go it alone, the county would go through a “full recruitment process” that would be open to any qualified applicant, Knutson said.

This year's county budget includes two months' worth of salary for a medical examiner who is not a medical doctor, so there could be some overlap with the old system, starting as early as November, Knutson said.

The decision about a partnership could affect whether the county sets up its own permanent morgue, as Smit has proposed.

In his notes in the annual budget, Knutson said the decision on whether or not to join with Dane County would affect the issue of what kind of a morgue Rock County would need.

For now, bodies sometimes are stored at Mercy Hospital and Trauma Center on a short-term basis, Smit said. A walk-in cooler in the basement of the county's former Rock Haven building also is being used.

This year's coroner's budget calls for annual expenses of $458,061, offset by $110,350 in revenue from fees, mostly from cremation permits.

Cremation permits cost $175 apiece. Disinterment fees also contribute, at $100 apiece.

The coroner's office has 3.8 employees plus seven more who are paid per job to relieve the regular staff, according to the budget notes.

Operating expenses include the $138,000 set aside for autopsies, toxicology reports, transporting bodies and supplies such as body bags and gloves.

Keach was paid about $58,658 annually when she stepped down, and she was the lowest-paid of the county's elected officials, county Clerk Lori Stottler said.

A salary range for a medical examiner has not been established.

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