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The Coroner and the Cost of Death : Cutbacks: Four regional offices may close, resulting in long delays in dealing with fatalities.

Unkind Cuts: The L.A. County budget and your quality of life. One in an occasional series.

July 14, 1993|TRACEY KAPLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The worst financial crisis ever to confront Los Angeles County may end up affecting not only the living, but also the dead.

Consider the case of Sunday school teacher Bernadine Day, who died Monday when her car was rear-ended by a drunk driver and knocked into the path of oncoming traffic.

Twenty minutes after the collision was reported, an investigator from the county coroner's office had extricated Day's body from her black Toyota, removing the corpse from sight and enabling sheriff's deputies to reopen the clogged Santa Clarita roadway and return to patrol.

But Day's body would have remained in the 94-degree heat for up to six hours while crowds gathered and traffic backed up if budget cuts now being considered by the county Board of Supervisors had been in effect.

"We'd all be out here for hours just waiting," said Deputy Alan Young of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. "And there would be no one on traffic patrol in Santa Clarita."

The proposed budget calls for saving $715,000 by closing the coroner's headquarters in downtown Los Angeles between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. daily and shutting down regional offices in Lancaster, Sylmar and San Dimas and at Los Angeles International Airport. (The San Dimas facility is the newest, opening Sunday in a sheriff's station to handle cases in the eastern part of the county.)

Complaints about corpses being left for long periods at accident and crime scenes while investigators drove from downtown Los Angeles prompted the coroner to open the first regional office, in Lancaster, five years ago.

"Our response time had been very, very poor--up to six hours--because it's such a humongous area to cover," said coroner's spokesman Tony Hernandez, noting the immensity of Los Angeles County, which covers 4,069 square miles. "With the cutbacks, we'll go back to those delays and more."

The regional offices handled about 18% of the coroner's 18,300 cases last year, Hernandez said.

If those offices are closed, the delays would not only tie up traffic, keep police officers off the street and permit decomposition of corpses, but would also mean that families would not learn of a loved one's death for longer periods of time, according to a July 2 letter to Sheriff Sherman Block by Ilona Lewis, director of the coroner's office. After gathering the dead person's possessions, photographing the body and making a preliminary assessment of the cause of death, investigators are responsible for visiting the family to inform them of the death. The regional offices also make it more convenient for families to reclaim property belonging to the deceased, officials said.

Coroner's officials hope to convince the Board of Supervisors that keeping the offices open is a matter of public safety. Under the terms of the state budget, $134 million in sales tax revenue for the county is earmarked for public safety programs--and officials are making a bid for some of that money.

But the supervisors must weigh the importance of keeping the regional offices at a time when other cuts are being contemplated, including the layoffs of 108 prosecutors.

Supervisor Mike Antonovich opposes the cutbacks of the coroner's office, but the other supervisors are more cautious.

"We need to look at the totality," said Joel Bellman, a spokesman for board Chairman Ed Edelman, whose district includes the San Fernando and Santa Clarita areas served by the Sylmar office. "A huge amount of what we do impacts public safety--lifeguards, restaurant inspection. The question is what public safety purpose is higher than another."

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