Coroner protests proposal

Photo by Carly Farrell

Photo by Carly Farrell

LEESBURG, Ga. -- Lee County Coroner Ronald Rowe called the pay proposal submitted by the Lee County Commission's Finance Committee during budget hearings Thursday "outrageous" and threatened to leave the elected position he's held for the past 12 years.

"It's not worth it to be on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week for $6,000 a year," Rowe said after Finance Committee member Bill Williams outlined the county's salary proposal for the coroner's office for fiscal year 2012. "I'd resign right now if they'd let me.

"Y'all know what y'all want to do; I know what I've got to do. Y'all are going to have to find another coroner soon."

Williams said after discussions with Rowe ended that the commission did not set the pay scale for the coroner's position.

"The state determines the salaries of the coroners based on population in each county," Williams said. "The options were for him to take a straight $4,411 (yearly) salary or $175 for each case he worked. He wanted the salary plus $175 per case.

"We offered him an option, and he said he'd leave it up to us."

Even when the Finance Committee added a $2,000 local stipend to Rowe's proposed salary, the former firefighter was openly upset about the proposal.

"I can do the administrative part of the job for $6,000, but I'll let the deputy (coroner) do the bodies," Rowe said.

"Are you saying you won't pick up the bodies?" Commissioner Rick Muggridge asked Rowe.

"I didn't say that," Rowe answered. "I'm saying it's not worth it to me to do the job for that amount of money."

When Williams later said the committee had cut Rowe's budget request for indigent burial funds to zero, the coroner again expressed disdain.

"Do you know what indigent burial is?" he asked.

When Williams assured him that he did and told Rowe that the county had not had an indigent burial in four years, the coroner said,

"Y'all have trimmed this down to where the coroner's office can't hardly work."

Lee officials said the coroner answers an average of 70 calls a year.

Prior to their meeting with Rowe, the Finance Committee -- Williams and Commission Chairman Ed Duffy, who were joined Thursday by fellow commissioners Muggridge and Betty Johnson -- met with Chief Appraiser Joe Wright from the tax assessor's office. The largest proposed cut from Wright's budget request was $36,000 for board of equalization duties.

"I understand what you're doing, and that's fine," Wright said. "But the scary part is the unknown. With new legislation, I don't know if $43,500 is going to be enough to do what we'll have to do; $7,500 definitely is not enough. My question is, are you going to cover me when we come up short?

"I based my budget request on statistics, and if 10 percent of the property owners who are sent tax evaluations appeal -- which is average -- that will be 1,400 appeals. It costs $27 a pop for the board of equalization to hear each appeal. I'd be lying if I didn't say I'm scared to death about this."

Williams said the board is "being optimistic" that appeals will be lower this year.

With budget hearings now almost halfway through, Williams said the Finance Committee had already trimmed more than $270,000 from department head requests. That's far short of the $2,086,000 that must be trimmed to balance the FY 2012 budget.

"We've scrutinized every item in the budget in order to find that $2,086,000," Duffy said. "This board has made a commitment to balance the budget without a tax increase, and department heads have cooperated to the fullest extent to help us find that money.

"Our department heads know that now -- in this economy -- is not the time to consider a millage rate increase. With their help, we will balance this budget."

The Finance Committee will continue deliberations Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of next week. Meetings Tuesday are scheduled with the district attorney, Parks and Recreation, the health department, the Grand Island Club and Economic Development.

Wednesday meetings are scheduled with Public Works, Probate Court/Indigent Defense, the County Extension Office and Magistrate Court. The hearings will conclude Thursday after meetings with officials in facilities, the library, Planning and Development and the Sheriff's Office.