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Commissioner says liability concerns led to coroner funding suggestion
He says claim of having information that would "shut Covington down" not a factor
Bailey-Butts at BOC
Coroner Dorothea Bailey-Butts speaks to the Newton County Board of Commissioners Jan. 19 at the Historic Courthouse. - photo by Tom Spigolon

COVINGTON, Ga. — A commissioner says he was worried about the liability to the county from use of a contract employee who had not been paid when he suggested a one-time payment to the new coroner to set up her office.

District 5 Commissioner Ronnie Cowan said he was using his past experience as a human resources director to make sure Coroner Dorothea Bailey-Butts had funding she needed to set up and operate her office after she hired an administrative assistant and a temporary worker.

He added he was not reacting to Bailey-Butts’ public assertion that she had information she did not disclose that could “shut Covington down” amid a discussion about moving to vacant space in the county-owned R.L. Cousins building.

Cowan said he did not feel she was using the information to try to convince county commissioners to approve funding for her office.

Bailey-Butts did not respond to two requests for information about her Jan. 19 discussion with commissioners. 

In response to an open records request, she said the information she had that could "shut Covington down" was her personal property.

In a lengthy and sometimes rambling review of her needs, Bailey-Butts told commissioners last week she needed at least $9,000 for training and supplies. 

She also said she needed office space and equipment and repair of the county morgue, which she said had not been maintained properly.

A former coroner said the building is owned and maintained by the Newton County Sheriff’s Office.

On a motion by Cowan, the Newton County Board of Commissioners voted to make a one-time payment to Bailey-Butts of up to $50,000 for the coroner’s office. 

However, before it will give the coroner the funds, commissioners will need to approve a separate budget transfer at a future meeting, said Finance Director Brittany White. 

The final amount of the payment will be determined after White and County Manager Lloyd Kerr meet with Bailey-Butts to determine what she needs to operate through the remainder of the 2021 budget year.

She said she has used her own funds to pay for staffing and sought assistance from agencies like Piedmont Newton Hospital to acquire needed equipment.

Bailey-Butts also complained about problems with inoperable and obsolete equipment and insufficient office space for such needs as records storage space.

The coroner’s office has about $49,000 remaining in its 2021 budget to operate through the end of the year.

County officials have told other area media sources that she had enough money remaining in her budget for her needs so it was unclear why she was asking the board for extra funding.

Cowan said he believed much of her remaining budget is tied up in personnel costs which is why he suggested investigating if she needed more funding.

He said she was using her personal funds to pay an administrative assistant she hired. 

Another assistant she hired on a contract basis had been working voluntarily for the coroner’s office — creating another potential liability, Cowan said.

He said the funding was needed because Bailey-Butts is the first coroner he can recall in decades that was not associated with a business she could use to provide needed equipment.

Bailey-Butts’ predecessor, Tommy Davis, and Davis’ predecessor Bob Wheeler also worked for funeral homes.

The coroner also told the board that the county morgue facility needed funding to “bring it up to code.” She said there was mold and mildew and the inside temperature could not be regulated for proper storage of bodies during her investigations. 

Other claims she made referred to her role as an investigator at any death scene in Newton County and transportation of bodies after any incident involving a death.

Sheriff Ezell Brown responded with a statement: “We do not have anything to say in regards to what was discussed between Coroner Dorothea Bailey-Butts and the Newton County Board of Commissioners last week. 

“We believe it is in the best interest of our Newton County community to not become involved in what appears to be a nature of polarization at the Newton County Coroner’s Office, whether it’s direct questions or social media posts. 

“As the Office of the Sheriff, our fundamental duties are to serve and protect this county,” Brown said.