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The staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Latest merger proposal: Combining Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough medical examiner offices

 Local leaders have been talking about ways to merge airport operations and bus services in the Tampa Bay region.

One official has even suggested trading some of Tampa’s cruise business for St. Petersburg’s pro baseball team.

Now comes a proposal to merge the business of conducting autopsies in Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties.

Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner Dr. Jon Thogmartin pitched that idea in a recent meeting with Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill, both confirmed Tuesday. Merrill said he’s giving it some consideration, even as his office is seeking applications to replace retiring Hillsborough Medical Examiner Dr. Vern Adams.

Thogmartin said the two jurisdictions are obviously close. His investigators sometimes cross Hillsborough to get to parts of Pasco from Pinellas. So why not take a look at it while there’s a pending vacancy.

“It wouldn’t be harmful to just explore if that’s feasible,” Thogmartin said. “I appreciate them listening to the idea. I think they’re being very progressive and smart.”

Merrill, and the county commissioners to whom he reports, have made looking for ways to consolidate with other governments a priority. He has collapsed departments within county government but also is collaborating with the city of Tampa on purchasing contracts, including a major computer operating system.

He said he’s open to the idea teaming up for autopsies. At the same time, he said he will likely consider it with skepticism.

Merrill has undertaken major overhauls of several county departments. Some have been with the aim of making their structure more sensible and efficient, others because of personnel or other issues. 

The medical examiner’s office has been one area with which he has not had to tinker.

“Thankfully that’s one area I haven’t had to worry about,” Merrill said. “I think we have to be very careful before shifting to something like this.”

One wrinkle is that both medical examiners’ offices are structured somewhat differently.

Generally, the governor’s appoints medical examiners to three-year terms based on recommendations from an oversight panel, the Medical Examiner Commission. Most represent multiple counties in districts that for the most part are the same as the judicial circuits they serve.

Hillsborough is an exception. It is one of four districts made up of one county that has a home rule charter and has the option of hiring its own medical examiner. 

As a result, Thogmartin is a gubernatorial appointee who is a private contract employee whose costs are paid by Pinellas and Pasco counties. Adams is a department head of the county, a full-fledged government employee, with government benefits

Merrill says he plans to ask Adams his thoughts on Thogmartin’s idea. In a phone interview Tuesday, Adams, who is retiring after 21 years, said it’s entirely up to Merrill.

“I won’t be here,” he said.

In a briefing memo to commissioners Monday on Hillsborough’s distinctive history of selecting its own medical examiner, he said both systems have their pros and cons. Hillsborough’s gives local government more oversight and a sense of continuity for employees who would report to the medical examiner.

Commissioners reached echoed Merrill’s first-blush response — a willingness to consider the idea, but with care.

“We want to be very cautious that we don’t break something that doesn’t need fixed,” said Commissioner Victor Crist.

Thogmartin said the concept has been used in other districts in Florida. A merger possibility is made easier here because Hillsborough County has the ability to hire who it sees fit, including the guy across the bay.

While he says he hasn’t done a detailed analysis, he would expect that a merger would result in savings for each county.

“If it doesn’t save money, to me it’s not feasible,” he said.

[Last modified: Tuesday, May 8, 2012 8:59pm]


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