On the same day Columbus City Council approved the Fiscal Year 2014 budget, the coroner's office asked for an increase in some service fees.
The budget includes 27 departments that absorbed a 1.5 percent reduction, including the coroner's office.
The budget for the office is around $294,000 after Muscogee County Coroner Buddy Bryan cut it by 2.8 percent. But Bryan said more changes are necessary to keep the department afloat. Now Bryan is asking council to increase and implement fees for certain transportation services to save money and increase revenue.
Bryan wants to charge outlying counties, like Chattahoochee and Marion, more money to transport suspicious death victims to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation Crime Lab in Decatur. Right now, they charge $150, but he wants to increase it to $275. “That doesn't cover our costs. We're losing money due to the cost of gas and the employee and the wear and tear on the vehicle. So I'm asking for an increase to justify us doing that.”
Bryan also wants to start charging funeral homes $175 to bring the bodies back to Columbus. He estimates there are180-200 trips to Decatur annually. The coroner said both moves would generate revenue of nearly $40,000 for the city.
But many councilors are skeptical about his proposals. Councilor Evelyn Turner-Pugh said funds to transport bodies to and from the crime lab are already accounted for in the budget. She's concerned if Bryan's proposal is approved, the funeral home will pass the cost along to the family burying their loved one.
Bryan said under state law he is only required to provide transportation to Decatur, but the designated funeral home is responsible for the return trip. He said the coroner's office has been bringing them back as a courtesy, but he's changing the policy. “The only time I'll bring a body back is if a funeral home has not been designated.”
But, council needs to approve any fee changes.
Councilor Bruce Huff said there are a lot of unanswered questions “I'm feeling that we need to have an open discussion to figure out what's best for Columbus and not necessarily what's best for just his office.” Huff said council needs to find the least expensive way to bring remains home without passing the majority of the costs to families.
Huff's family owns a funeral home, but he insists it's not a conflict of interest to sit in and provide input during the discussions. He does not plan to vote on the issues. He just wants the discussion to be fair and involve funeral directors. “If it means at some point I have to back off. If I'm asked to step away from it, I'll be glad to.”
Late Tuesday afternoon City Attorney Clifton Fay told News 3 it is unlikely that Huff will be participating in any upcoming discussions or votes on the matters. After looking at the city charter code of ethics it was discovered that no Councilor who has a private, financial interest in a matter can be involved in any policy making.
Councilors have yet to schedule a work session where they can openly discuss the fee proposals and study state law.
Earlier this year the coroner also proposed taking over indigent burials, which is currently handled by funeral homes, to save money as well. There is a meeting this Thursday to discuss it.