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Officials consider idea of consolidating Tampa Bay area medical examiner offices

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

One official even suggested trading some of Tampa's cruise business for the Tampa Bay Rays, St. Petersburg's pro baseball team.

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

Pasco-Pinellas 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 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, he reasoned, 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 — and saving public money — a priority. He has collapsed departments within county government and is collaborating with Tampa on purchasing contracts, including a major computer operating system.

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

Merrill has undertaken major overhauls of several 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 is one department with which he has not had to tinker.

"I think we have to be very careful before shifting to something like this," Merrill said.

Medical examiners are charged with positively identifying dead people who are victims of crime, suicide and accidents, and in certain other circumstances. They seek to determine the cause of death in those cases, as well as for bodies to be cremated, donated to science or removed from the state, and dispose of bodies that go unclaimed.

Generally, the governor appoints medical examiners to three-year terms based on recommendations from an oversight panel. Most represent multiple counties in districts that usually mimic the judicial circuits they serve.

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

Thogmartin is a gubernatorial appointee who is a private contract employee whose costs are paid by Pinellas and Pasco counties. Adams is a Hillsborough County department head, a government employee with government benefits.

Merrill said he plans to ask Adams his thoughts on Thogmartin's idea. In a phone interview Tuesday, Adams, who is retiring after 21 years from his $254,000-a-year job, said it's entirely up to Merrill.

"I won't be here," he said.

In a briefing memo to commissioners Monday on Hillsborough's 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 report to the medical examiner.

Hillsborough commissioners reached Tuesday echoed Merrill's first-blush response — a willingness to consider it, 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.

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

"If it doesn't save money, to me it's not feasible," he said.

Officials consider idea of consolidating Tampa Bay area medical examiner offices 05/08/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 8, 2012 10:56pm]
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