In response to the recent misinformation publicized in another county newspaper, I wanted to clarify and educate the public regarding my decision to request permission for a cremation authorization fee from the York County Board of Commissioners.
Cremations have been reviewed for decades by county coroners and medical examiners all over this country, and in the days when cremations were few, and done largely for financial hardship, such reviews did not take up much of the coroner's time. But times have changed, and society has changed. Now, cremations are more readily accepted in most faiths, and they are still economical and even practical, resulting in many families seeking cremation for their next of kin.
As a matter of fact, in York County, we are actually on target to review 2,000 cremations this year in the coroner's office, a 22 percent increase over last year. The number of cremations has been gradually increasing year after year, just as the number of death investigations have been increasing. All similar-sized counties, and most other Pennsylvania counties in general have implemented these fees for years. York County has been among the very last not to implement the fees.
Former Coroner Barry Bloss actually proposed a request for cremation authorization fees back in December 2013 before I took office. I could have let the proposal pass then and had his administration and the commissioners take the heat for the fees before my taking office. Instead, I asked that the fee proposal be put on hold for some time, so that I had time to learn more about what actually goes into cremation authorization and until I did my due diligence with the other counties to determine their fee rationale and fee structure.
In the past four months, my husband and I surveyed dozens of county residents and initially the reaction was somewhat negative. Once they understood all the facts and what actually goes into the review process, however, most found the proposal very reasonable.
We are an extremely busy row office, operating with limited staff, seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Cremation requests come in seven days a week, 24 hours a day. While many of the reviews are "routine," the review can sometimes be quite detailed and take hours, dependent on if the death was misclassified by the physician or the health care facility (a "natural" death that was actually traumatic), or if medical records must be obtained, or a more detailed investigation must be done by the coroner or a deputy coroner.
Sometimes, this entails a physical visit to the funeral home or the health care facility involved, and/or interviewing of physicians, law enforcement, nursing staff and family members. In the days when cremations were few, such detailed reviews rarely happened because the cremation was done for financial hardship reasons. But as cremations have increased, so have the investigative demands placed on coroner's offices.
For example, on any given day in the coroner's office, we have a deputy coroner on duty, as well as myself, ready and available to respond to accidental/traumatic deaths and natural, unexplained or unattended deaths (when the family physician will not or cannot sign the death certificate). It is our responsibility to go to each of those scenes. When my deputy is responding to a coroner call and a second call happens on or about the same time, often I must select one of my part-time deputy coroners to attend to the second call. That then enables me to conduct the cremation authorization review process with any potential subsequent investigation (related to that review) in a timely fashion so that funeral arrangements are not delayed for the family. (We've even set up an EFax subscription so that reviews can be expedited to accommodate the funeral directors and families all weekend long.)
When I call in my back-up deputy, the county incurs a $100-per-case fee that is paid to the deputy. This cost is borne by the county taxpayer.
Not every family chooses cremation in the disposition of their loved one; therefore, I am proposing cremation authorization fees as a user fee for the services provided, similar to other row offices' user fees. (The coroner's office has no user fees for the general public at this time.)
Based on the progression of cremation cases in York County, if we do nothing, the entire tax base will ultimately be required to absorb the increasing cost of providing this service to the community, when in fact it should be borne by those utilizing this service. If it is built into the budget, taxes would have to be raised, affecting the entire tax base, instead of just the users who are utilizing the particular service.
With my proposal, I have included exceptions. I am proposing waivers of the fees for children (less than 18 years of age), for veterans and for those who have financial hardship (with a signed statement that they will not be filing an estate, i.e. less than $10,000 in assets). To my knowledge, very few counties offer such waivers. So we are very willing to work with families in these situations.
While some still may not agree with me, I think it is important that the public be educated on the rationale behind my request for cremation authorization fees. This is not a death tax – which applies to all – but a user fee that affects only those who utilize this service.
— Pam Gay is York County's coroner.