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Lean Times at Coroner's Office Mean Families Must Wait for Information

The Sacramento County Coroner's office, one of the busiest in the state, has seen its core staff cut by half in recent years.

Between Friday and Sunday, the Sacramento County Coroner added 27 names to the list of the county’s dead. The deceased included a 91-year-old woman from Elk Grove and a 34-year-old woman whose body was found Saturday night in bushes near an I-80 off-ramp.

In short, it was a typical weekend for the overworked and understaffed coroner's office. The dead don’t care about budget cuts.

In the past couple of years, the heart of the coroner’s office has been sliced in half. The number of forensic pathologists has dropped from four to two. The clerical staff went from six to three people. The office where family members pick up death certificates is now open only 20 hours a week.

“At some point you can no longer reduce supplies, overtime and hours,” said Assistant Coroner Ed Smith. “You have to start cutting people.”

The cut in forensic pathologists, specially trained doctors who perform autopsies then state a cause and manner of death, has resulted in longer waiting periods for families to receive death certificates, Coroner Gregory Wyatt said.

“Autopsies can take several hours to several days depending on the complexity of the death. So every hour the doctor is doing an autopsy, they are not writing the death reports, which families need,” Wyatt said.

Despite budget cuts and reduced staff, the coroner’s office still performs more than 1,400 autopsies a year and works on more than 8,000 cases, Wyatt said.

“We only have 36 people,” Wyatt said. “We are the fifth or sixth busiest office in the state.”

Wyatt noted that every county department has had to make difficult reductions and that the coroner’s office was not alone.

Bruce Wagstaff, Administrator of the Sacramento County Countywide Services Agency, allowed that all departments are adjusting to reductions, but that the cuts to the coroner’s office hurt the public in a singular way.

“We recognize the cuts that have been taken everywhere,” Wagstaff said. “But we certainly also recognize that in relation to the coroner’s office, cuts have affected their ability to get final autopsy reports out and how that has impacted families waiting for reports.”

Smith agreed that the delay in distribution of death certificates can be both emotionally and financially difficult for families.

“When somebody dies and they need a coroner to investigate, there is no one else, we’re it,” Smith said.  “If a family’s baby dies and they need to know the cause of death, we’re it. If a wife is widowed and needs a death certificate to collect pension, we’re it.”

Because the office is looking at a $400,000 cut in fiscal year 2011-12, up to three positions could be cut, Wyatt said.

Wyatt said that while it is certain an assistant coroner and a coroner technician position will not be filled because of the upcoming reductions, he is working to keep the third position, another administrative assistant, from being cut.

Despite budget cuts and more staff reductions, the office is planning to hire a third forensic pathologist.

Wagstaff said the addition of a pathologist will help Wyatt and his staff to serve the public in a timely manner, but that cuts will still be made and the coroner’s office will still face challenges.

Wyatt said he is proud his staff continues to get its work done while still helping families through their grieving processes as much as possible.

“My staff comes to work and deals with people in the most horrific grief of their life,” Wyatt said. “We continually remember these are people, not caseloads or numbers. They are people that need answers, want answers and quite frankly deserve answers.”

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