County Awards New Coroner’s Contract

Written by Neil Farrell

Neil has been a journalist covering the Estero Bay Area for over 27 years. He’s won numerous journalism awards in several different categories over his career.

December 14, 2023

The County Sheriff’s Department has signed a new contract with a private San Diego-based forensic-pathology lab to fulfill its requirements under the law to investigate all deaths, from foul play or not.

County Sheriff Ian Parkinson’s staff report on the matter explained that the County lost its in-house pathologist and has had to contract out those services for some time.

“The Sheriff-Coroner,” Sheriff Parkinson’s report said, “is mandated to determine the method and manner of certain reportable deaths.

“Medical procedures related to this mandate must be fulfilled by a Forensic Pathologist who is specifically skilled and licensed to determine the cause of death and provide testimony in court proceedings.”

The County hired a full-time pathologist in September 2017, even as it stood up a new coroner’s facility out by the SLO County Airport. It’s apparently not easy to find a real life “Quincy.”

“The recruitment and hiring process took approximately 9 months,” the Sheriff said. “Since early 2022 the Forensic Pathologist was out on injury and separated from the Sheriff’s Office in September 2022.”

The Sheriff said he had to contract out these duties and had previously selected NAAG Pathology Labs for a short-term contract while they put out a request for proposals, which unfortunately has turned into long term.

“In April 2022 Central Services-Purchasing assisted in running RFP 1669 for pathology services, resulting in only one response, from NAAG,” Sheriff Parkinson reported. County Supervisors extended NAAG’s old contract through June 2022 while a new one was negotiated based on the RFP, which only NAAG responded to. That resulted in a 13-month contract (covering from October 2022-October 2023). That gave them time to run another recruitment for an in-house pathologist, but they didn’t get a single application, according to the report.

“At that time, it was decided that the Sheriff’s Office would need to contract for services in order to continue fulfilling our legal mandate of determining the method and manner of certain reportable deaths.”

With NAAG seemingly the only game in town, the Sheriff sought a $1.6 million, 3-year contract starting at $336,000 this year, with another $30,000 in “autopsy services as needed” for a total of $366,000 for FY 2023/24. But he discounts a salary savings of $474,000 from the vacant pathologist position and so the net to the County this year was $108,000 in savings, according to the Sheriff’s report.

Going forward, the costs jump to $520,000 for NAAG’s contract in FY 24/25 and $546,000 in FY 25/26. The final, shortened year drops NAAG’s contract to $185,000. The salary savings are applied to these budgets too. 

Overall, the contract will mean increasing the department’s general fund bite to $75,000, $94,000 and $34,000 for future years. When this new contract expires, the Sheriff will be back to the Supervisors.

“In FY 2026/27,” Sheriff Parkinson’s report said, “the Sheriff’s Office will either start the recruitment process again for the Forensic Pathologist or will request to continue contracting for pathology services.”

Fortunately, SLO County’s murder rate is pretty low with just a handful of actual murders a year. However, essentially, the Coroner’s Office is called out to anyone’s death that wasn’t witnessed by someone or readily explained by an existing condition, such as a terminal illness. While local police most often are first on scene at a death, they almost always call in the Coroner’s Office to formally investigate.

Such investigations seek to determine whether a death was from natural causes, the result of an accident, or actual foul play — the so-called manner of death, as well as when and where a death occurred, among numerous other factors of a person’s demise.

As for NAAG, their website explains their mission. “We are an independent agency committed to offering high-quality forensic pathology services to the criminal justice community. Our services encompass providing autopsy support to California’s Sheriff-Coroner sector and consultations to prosecutors, defense attorneys, and child protection professionals.”

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