COVINGTON, Ga. — Inoperable or damaged equipment and lack of adequate facilities and supplies to do the job were among the issues the county’s new coroner said she inherited after taking office Jan. 1.
The Newton County Board of Commissioners responded by voting 4-1 on Tuesday, Jan. 19, to approve a one-time, $50,000 transfer from the 2021 budget to Coroner Dorothea Bailey-Butts.
District 5 Commissioner Ronnie Cowan said the coroner’s office needed that amount of money to pay for immediate needs like a statewide coroners training session, purchase of office machinery and supplies and replacement equipment simply to operate through the end of the budget year.
“I don’t want somebody in my family to die and I call the coroner and the coroner’s not able to provide an adequate service,” Cowan said.
The county manager and finance director now will meet with Bailey-Butts to find her specific needs. Commissioners then must approve transfer of the funds from other areas of the budget at a future meeting to create the one-time payment to the coroner, officials said.
Bailey-Butts first went before the commissioners Tuesday to tell them she needed about $9,000 for training and new supplies to replace non-working and obsolete equipment.
She then described for commissioners additional issues she encountered since beginning the job that requires her to investigate many types of deaths in the county.
Among them was an inadequate morgue in downtown Covington that she said needed immediate attention because it contained mold and had a faulty cooling system — among other problems.
“We need to get that (morgue) fixed ASAP,” she said. “I’m not talking about, just, no ‘mom and pop’ fixing something — I need to see certification.”
Bailey-Butts said she tried to store a body in the morgue recently before finding she could not do so because the temperature inside it could not be regulated.
The facility contained mold and mildew that could be breathed in and cause medical problems, she said.
“There’s no way that I would allow my staff … to take a body in there alone when the temperature is not working,” Bailey-Butts said.
After asking area funeral homes about available space, she finally transported the body to an area hospital, she said.
Other equipment is inoperable, including a laptop computer, handheld radio and camera, she said.
She said one vehicle dedicated to the office has bad brakes while the other has engine problems. The lack of a GPS in them forces her to use her personal cellphone’s GPS to travel to calls for service, she said.
In addition, she said she lacks adequate space in the coroner’s dedicated office in the Historic Courthouse.
“I’m an elected official and my office is the size of a closet,” Bailey-Butts said.
Chairman Marcello Banes pledged to look at vacant space in the county-owned R.L. Cousins school building as a possible office location.
Banes told her that currently vacant office space in the Historic Courthouse was reserved for a new deputy county clerk and new county film coordinator.
In addition, space on the unfinished third floor of the county administration building was not usable as an office, County Manager Lloyd Kerr said.
Banes said the county can make a private room available for her meetings in the Historic Courthouse while they determine if the county has space elsewhere.
FORMER CORONER RESPONDS
Bailey-Butts defeated longtime coroner Tommy Davis in the Nov. 3 election for the position.
Davis, who was first elected in 2008, said the Newton County Sheriff’s Office owns and is responsible for maintaining the morgue.
“It was in working order as of Dec. 31, 2020, as the last case I worked had to be temporarily stored before being transported for autopsy,” he said. “The morgue temperature on that day was 36 degrees and is regulated at that temperature.”
He said the morgue is equipped with an alarm that sends an alert to the person in charge of maintenance for the sheriff's department if the temperature ever goes up.
“The thermostat and temperature gauge is located inside the cooler itself and not on the door of the unit,” he said.
A gauge on the door is not part of a new cooling unit the sheriff installed within the last two years — when a new thermostat was placed inside the unit, Davis said.
He said, in reference to mold and mildew in the morgue, the drain for the cooling unit has to be cleaned from time to time so condensation can run out into a floor drain located just outside of the cooler door.
The morgue was never used on a regular basis and would sometimes sit empty weeks between temporary storage uses, he said.
“During that time the sheriff's maintenance department was always monitoring the equipment, making sure it was working properly,” Davis said.
Both coroner vehicles were in “good working order”on his last day in office, Davis said.
“Any time a vehicle needed service or repair the county shop would complete all service and repairs as needed,” Davis said.
All equipment left at the coroner's office was its property, including the old and obsolete equipment, he said.
“As technology changed over the 17 years I was with the office, certain items were not needed and not replaced,” Davis said.
He said the radio was one that operated on the MRD system that county emergency agencies had not used in years.
“The laptop was old and the operating system was outdated,” he said.
Davis said the only personal item he used to do the coroner’s job was his cell phone.
This article was updated to remove a statement regarding a request for comment from the Newton County Sheriff's Office. An attempt to seek comment from the sheriff's office on the coroner's statements was not received due to a technical error.