Citing an ever-increasing caseload and limited space in his office’s 10-year-old Robertsdale facility, first-term Baldwin County Coroner Brian Pierce is seeking to move his department to a larger building and classify his staff as full-time employees, he told Lagniappe last week.
Noting the number of deaths the office has investigated increased from 284 in 2012 to 479 in the fiscal year ending two months ago, Pierce said he is also seeking enhanced professional certifications and more competitive pay for himself and four deputy coroners.
In an information packet he distributes to local elected officials, which he compiled after his election last year, Pierce includes a proposed piece of legislation that would allow the County Commission to declare his position full time, and allow the county personnel department to establish the pay scale for his position and for those of his deputies.
But in a curious twist, Pierce is also exploring the possibility of having coroner staff be governed by the sheriff’s personnel department, leading to a possible conflict with the Alabama Constitution. As written, the state law dictates that the county coroner is the only state or local official who can legally arrest a county sheriff.
“The constitution also says I become sheriff if the sheriff cannot fulfill their duties,” Pierce said, adding that in reality, “it wouldn’t take the governor very long to appoint someone new … it’s just one of those things that are on the books.”
He suggested that whether or not a coroner or deputy coroners could effectively become employees of the sheriff’s office would be “something for a lawyer to decide,” but he has spoken to Baldwin County Sheriff Hoss Mack about it and “he seemed amenable depending on the circumstances.”
“Here’s the big thing right now: The secretaries don’t even have to answer to me,” Pierce explained. “They answer to the County Commission, or the County [Administrator]. Well [they] don’t know what kind of work they do … Once we can move on, they would have to answer to me, they would be under my direct supervision at that point. It would also be giving our deputies a little bit more power as well because right now they have none. I could fire them all just because I don’t like them. Of course I wouldn’t do that, but there’s no protection for them working.”
Currently the coroner’s office employs three deputy coroners, a full-time administrative assistant and a part-time administrative assistant. Under the oversight of a personnel department — be it the county’s or the sheriff’s — Pierce believes he can secure competitive pay that would attract and retain the best qualified staff and bring the office up to nationwide standards that, admittedly, are not achieved by many coroner’s offices in Alabama.
“The state standards are kind of weak, to be honest,” he said. “You need to complete a 16-hour course to be a coroner in the state, and that has to be completed within six months of your election. It doesn’t require any prior knowledge. We already go a little further and require a 40-hour course to be a deputy, plus require 20 to 30 hours every year of continuing education.”
Pierce himself was a deputy coroner for nine years before his election, but he is a trained and licensed chiropractor by trade. Recently, he was certified by the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators (ABMDI), but he is also hoping his entire office can achieve certifications from both ABMDI and the International Association of Coroners & Medical Examiners that would “elevate standards” and qualify it for additional grant money.
The coroner’s office typically investigates any violent, unexplained, accidental or child deaths, issuing death certificates when conclusive. It also investigates deaths in custody, which could lead to another conflict with the sheriff’s office.
It does not perform autopsies. Those cases are referred to the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences, which has three labs around the state; the closest is in Mobile.
Still, with a population that could reach or exceed 250,000 between the 2020 and 2030 censuses, Pierce believes Baldwin County is also on track to have a large enough caseload that a county medical examiner could soon be justified as well.
“We’re sending about 37 percent of our cases for autopsies each year and the standard nationally is when you hit 250,000 to 400,000 people, that region or that locality should have a medical examiner,” he said, noting four of Alabama’s 67 counties host forensic pathologists best suited for performing autopsies.
Legislation on coroner offices varies from state to state and in Florida, each county is required to have a medical examiner. In his information packet, Pierce included the state of Georgia’s salary scale, which indicates for a county the size of Baldwin, coroners are paid between $50,165 and $141,985. In fiscal year 2020, Pierce’s entire office was allocated $86,276 for salaries.
As the Robertsdale facility also serves as the only morgue in the county — holding bodies until they are claimed by a family member or a funeral home — the 15-person walk-in cooler at the coroner’s office can often fill to capacity. There is so little space, that when a body needs to be pulled from the back of the cooler, other bodies must also be removed from the cooler and rearranged to make way for its transport.
During the process, a roll-up door is usually opened, where the entire operation can be seen from the street.
“There’s no privacy here when loading or unloading and that can seem a little disrespectful,” Pierce said during a tour of the facility. He also showed an evidence and property closet filled to capacity, offices that have little room to work and a break room that doubles as a conference room.
He acknowledged the County Commission awarded his office over $100,000 more this year than last — for a total budget of $410,382 in 2020 — but said the cost of transporting bodies between Baldwin and Mobile counties has also increased significantly in recent years.
“I hate to see that so little value is placed on the coroner’s office,” he said. “Especially when you see an animal shelter that gets $1.4 million in the budget. You see my problem with that.”
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