By MARINA WATERS
Washington County approved its budget for the upcoming fiscal year Monday, but not before commissioners discussed the county’s medical examiner budget that the commission cut by $217,000.
In a 13-1 vote, the county commission approved a motion from Commissioner Mike Ford to reduce the county medical examiner line item to $63,000. Ford also requested the county’s safety committee take up the discussion in future meetings. Commissioner Larry England was opposed to the motion and Jodi Jones was absent.
During the public hearing portion of the meeting, Washington County Constable John Daniel said that Washington County changed medical examiners in 2011 and currently has a contract with East Tennessee State University. Because the ETSU department works under the state health commission, he said, the number of autopsies has risen.
“We took ETSU as our medical examiner,” Daniel said. “They are actually working for the state health commissioner so that means that they have to follow those rules. That’s how our autopsies went from 40 to now they’re doing over 672 autopsies a year.
“If you were a local medical examiner, you were appointed by your county commission. You did not have to go by those rules. Those rules were only meant for the people who worked for the state.”
An interim medical examiner was appointed by the former county mayor, Dan Eldridge, to finish out the former examiner’s term in June of 2018, which was approved by the commission in a 24-0 vote. However, the contract with ETSU expired on September 30, 2018 and was extended, Washington County Attorney Allyson Wilkinson said.
Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy also said the examiner’s term expires in September of 2019, meaning the contract and the examiner’s term aren’t aligned.
“You had a five-year appointment for a medical examiner and a four-year contract,” Grandy said. “They’re still out of sync and I’m not sure how you rectify it. The statute requires that the term is for five years. There may be a way around it. That seems like a CTAS (County Technical Assistance Service) question.”
However, some commissioners felt the commission was left out of the process.
According to Tennessee Code Annotated 38-7-104, “A county medical examiner shall be appointed by the county mayor, subject to confirmation by the county legislative body, based on a recommendation from a convention of physicians resident in the county.” Though the interim examiner was approved in June of 2018, some commissioners were just learning of the extended contract with ETSU.
“I’m finding a lot of this out tonight,” Commissioner Danny Edens said. “I’m having a real problem finding out how we got to this point to start with, how the legislative body was completely left out of this process. That’s how it feels to me that the legislative body was completely passed over and left out of this process. How do we get to the point where this legislative body was left out of the process altogether?”
Wilkinson said the last time the required convention of physicians was held to provide a medical examiner recommendation was 2014. Then, two more interims were appointed, including the current examiner.
“In the meantime, the contracts didn’t line up for timing purposes and the ETSU contract expired September 30, 2018,” Wilkinson explained. “It was extended and then the issue of the medical examiner was not raised. It wasn’t in our office to calendar anything to put in front of the body.”
Ford’s original motion regarding the medical examiner budget would have removed the funds for the line item. Instead, the commission opted to set the budget at $63,000 to make it through the next 90 days.
“If we cut this back to zero, where are our autopsies going tomorrow?,” Chairman Greg Matherly asked. “I’d rather take those 90 days than no option at all.”
Meanwhile, Ford remained that the commission was unaware of the medical examiner issue.
“We can’t build schools, we can’t do the things we’ve got to do and we’re talking about over a quarter of a million dollars in one year,” Ford said. “We need to know what’s going on. I feel like an ostrich with my head stuck in the sand sometimes. I’ve asked on several occasions, you have to admit I have, about this medical examiner thing for several months.
“$280,000 is a lot of money,” Grandy replied. “It’s just that we had this task of forensics. It was budgeted last year. It was in last year’s budget. So it’s not as if the money appropriation hasn’t come before the legislative body. It has. Here we are looking at it again.”