No decline in Luzerne County overdose deaths, coroner says

By Jennifer Learn-Andes -
Hoggarth -

Luzerne County is projected to end 2017 with 139 overdose deaths, or in the ballpark of last year’s record 142.

“Unfortunately nothing changed as far as numbers,” county Coroner William Lisman told council during his Monday night budget presentation.

He said afterward there were 113 confirmed overdose deaths this year as of Nov. 1 in addition to eight suspected pending cases. Another five possible cases were added this weekend, he said.

The administration based the coroner’s proposed budget on the expectation overdose deaths will remain at high levels, seeking an allocation of $510,728 for 2018. It’s a $23,000 decrease from 2017, but another $30,000 may be added back at the request of management.

County Manager C. David Pedri said the administration had reduced the $160,000 budgeted for forensic examinations to $130,000 next year after a review of spending to date, not realizing many bills are still pending from a pathologist.

Lisman emphasized he is prudent about authorizing autopsies in drug overdose deaths and does not advocate following the practice of many counties in performing autopsies for all suspected drug cases. Instead, the coroner said he works with police and the county district attorney’s office to select cases likely to lead to charges against the alleged drug suppliers.

Thirteen of the 55 autopsies performed this year to date involved drug overdoses and were requested by law enforcement, he said. Each autopsy costs approximately $2,200.

His budget includes another $60,000 for toxicology tests, which is the same amount as 2017.

To help offset expenses, Lisman expects to bring in $130,400 — a revenue increase of $16,000 attributed to a rise in cremation permits.

The number of cremations should hit 1,950 in 2017 and continue to grow in 2018, prompting him to budget $126,000 next year, or $16,000 more. The county increased the cremation permit fee from $30 to $60 on Feb. 1.

In comparison, there were 1,872 cremations in 2016 and 1,826 in 2015, county records show. The tally was 814 in 2002.

Lisman and others attribute the growth to increased public and religious acceptance of cremation.

The coroner’s office is part of the judicial services and records division, which is budgeted at a proposed $4.6 million in 2018, about the same as this year’s allocation.

Unlike most divisions, this one generates revenue to cover all expenses, with $4.8 million in receipts forecasted for 2018.

Among the other revenue sources in the division: deeds/wills, $2.05 million; prothonotary/clerk of courts, $1.41 million; and sheriff/security, $1.1 million.

The sheriff/security office is the largest expense in the division, totaling a proposed $2.47 million. In addition to four management workers, the department employs 33 deputies, four clerks and 13 security guards. The administration has requested four new deputies to be covered by state and/or federal human services funding.

In other business Monday, council members discussed a proposed fee of up to $15 on deeds and mortgages recorded in the county to create a fund to demolish blighted properties in the county’s 76 municipalities.

Councilman Harry Haas had suggested consideration of the fee as part of the blight initiative he spearheaded, but he agreed with several colleagues Monday that more research is warranted before deciding if the idea should advance.

County Association of Realtors representative Brittany Kinsman appeared before council for the second time Monday to advocate rejection of the fee, which was authorized by state law last November. The added cost would place an unfair burden on people buying homes and refinancing, and other funding to target blight is available in the county community development office, Kinsman said.

Joan Hoggarth, who heads the judicial services and records division, said $67 in state and local fees already are charged on deeds and mortgages, not including realty transfer tax.

Council members said they will seek more information on community development blight funding during the department’s budget presentation next week.


By Jennifer Learn-Andes

What’s next

Luzerne County Council will hold a budget work session Nov. 14, following a 6 p.m. voting meeting, at the county courthouse on River Street in Wilkes-Barre.

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.