Government & Politics
 

Coroner says he needs budget doubled; will ask city for 60 percent increase

Saying his office is forced to operate well below national standards, the city’s newly inaugurated coroner said Wednesday he plans to ask Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office for a 60 percent budget increase in 2015.

In a mid-year budget review meeting before the City Council’s Criminal Justice Committee, Dr. Jeffrey Rouse said also that he intends to generate more money for his office by increasing the office’s notoriously low fees for out-of-parish autopsies and tapping other local criminal-justice agencies for funding he believes he is owed.

The Coroner’s Office’s 2014 budget is $2.1 million, including $1.8 million from the city’s general fund. The office handled about 1,400 autopsies in 2013, conducts mental health evaluations on the city’s behalf and is in charge of evidence collection for sexual assault cases. By comparison, Rouse said, Jefferson Parish Coroner, which performs fewer than 600 autopsies, has a budget of $5.4 million. St. Tammany’s coroner, with 262 autopsies last year, has a $4.6 million budget.

Rouse said his office needs at least a $4 million annual budget to get the office up to national standards, including increases to its current full-time staff of 15. The office now employs just two coroners, down from three earlier this year, he said.

That additional money “would get us to where we were under Mayor [Sidney] Barthelemy,” in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Rouse said.

Along with the budget request, the Coroner’s Office, which is expected to move from its current facility in a former funeral home to a new $12 million building by early next year, also plans to increase its self-generated budget, starting with higher fees for performing out-of-parish autopsies. The office charges other parishes $300 per autopsy — the same rate for decades — even though the service is worth as much as $2,000. Rouse said he wants to begin raising the rates, which he hopes to get to about $1,000 each, in September. Last year, the Coroner’s Office performed 474 autopsies for other parishes, according to the budget sheet Rouse presented to the City Council.

“I have inherited an organization that by necessity is dependent on this money,” Rouse said.“We need to keep doing it if we’re going to stay afloat.”

He also said he plans to request funding from the city’s courts under a state law called establishing an operating fund for coroners. The law allows but does not require courts to impose a $10 fee for each conviction to pay for the parish coroner’s operational costs.

Rouse said he spent his first few months as the head of the Orleans Parish Coroner’s Office reviewing the financial records of his predecessor, Dr. Frank Minyard, to figure out how to properly finance the troubled office. Minyard had not turned in a required annual audit to the state Legislative Auditor since 2011, and Rouse said Wednesday that he has called the Legislative Auditor in to review his books.

“I’ve seen no evidence of financial impropriety. I’ve seen no evidence of self-dealing or anything criminal,” Rouse said.

Still, he reached out to the auditor for assistance on prior year audits as well as with the Coroner’s Office’s current financial situation.

The committee also heard from District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro and the Orleans Public Defender’s Office.

During Cannizzaro’s presentation, writer Deborah Cotton, who was a victim of the 2013 Mother’s Day parade shooting, criticized the District Attorney’s Office for dropping state attempted murder charges in the case after the accused shooters in the case, brothers Akein and Shawn Scott, were named in federal racketeering charges.

“Crowd shootings are escalating and that needs to be acknowledged by this office,” Cotton said. Then, choking up, she added, “I and other survivors want to see some reciprocity, and I think we deserve that.”

Cannizzaro said the U.S. Attorney’s Office asked him to step aside after it brought its own charges against the Scott brothers. He said having two simultaneous prosecutions would be a waste of resources and could “stymie” both cases in court.

Cannizzaro said the federal charges would result in “more severe penalties than they could be subjected to under state prosecution.”

Speaking to Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton later in the meeting, Councilwoman Susan Guidry asked about Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s plan to relocate some mentally ill Orleans Parish inmates to the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel.

Bunton’s attorneys would have to travel hours to see their clients in the facility. He said the move could delay court cases and add to his office’s costs. Unlike other local criminal justice agencies, the office does not receive any “in-kind” budget contributions — such as fuel, cars or office space— from the city.

Guidry said the city should try to identify an alternate location for the inmates in Orleans Parish before U.S. District Court Judge Lance Africk orders the move in order to comply with the terms of a federal consent decree.

“We really need to look at finding a location here,” Guidry said.

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