Benton coroner might leave with office in red

KENNEWICK — Benton County Coroner Rick Corson might leave the county $44,000 in the red on autopsy expenses when he retires at the end of the year.

Corson wrote county Commissioner Jim Beaver he simply hasn't had time to process paperwork that's required to get reimbursement for autopsy costs from the state that have accumulated since July 1, 2009.

Corson said he is overworked and that his staff suffers from sleep deprivation.

Beaver wrote to Corson on Sept. 20, noting Corson had not submitted required forms to the state treasurer for autopsy cost reimbursements of $22,300 for July 1 through Dec. 31, 2009, and for $22,192 for Jan. 1 through July 31, 2010.

The state reimburses up to 40 percent of costs for contracting services of a forensic pathologist to do autopsies.

Beaver also wrote that Corson had not responded to offers of help from the county treasurer and auditor to prepare reimbursement requests.

Corson replied in a Sept. 24 letter that autopsy records are confidential so it would be "unethical" to let anyone but the coroner's staff do the reimbursement paperwork because it requires review of case files.

"The increase in workload and the shortage of staff has resulted in me spending a majority of my time performing the duties of deputy coroner, leaving little time to perform administrative duties," Corson wrote Beaver.

The coroner's office does not have computerized records so filing for reimbursement involves shuffling through many autopsy reports, which Corson wrote was "extremely time consuming."

Corson added that the heavy workload on his office also had taken a toll on the staff and a department vehicle.

The chief deputy coroner, Michelle Genack, was directed by her doctor to take time off because of job-related sleep deprivation, he said. "She has had some health issues related to her immune system," Corson said.

Also, a minor accident in the coroner's car was "the result of drowsiness and inattention caused by excessive work hours and lack of adequate time off," Corson wrote.

Corson wrote Beaver that his intent was to complete the reimbursement forms as workload allows.

But he told the Herald on Monday he could not guarantee that he will be able to deliver the paperwork, and didn't know if it was possible for anyone else to submit the forms after he leaves office Jan. 1.

"The commissioners have done absolutely nothing to support this office. They have made this office a hazardous work area because (we) are so overworked," Corson said.

He said the commissioners cut his budget last year by $20,000, despite a February 2009 report from the Washington State Chiefs and Sheriffs Association noting the coroner's office was understaffed and overworked.

The cut reduced the office from two full-time and one half-time positions to two full-time and one quarter-time positions.

"I've tried to maintain a high standard and the commissioners haven't supported me. They even went behind my back and cut my budget," Corson said.

When he learned about the cut earlier this year and then complained, Corson said, he was told to make up the difference by reducing expenses elsewhere. "So I had to cut safety supplies to get by," he said.

Corson last week asked the commissioners to restore the office's staff to its prior level in the 2011 budget.

* John Trumbo: 509-582-1529; jtrumbo@tricityherald.com