In Niagara County, it is the job of coroners to respond to the scene when someone dies. Sometimes they stay with the body until the funeral home staff arrives. The duties performed by coroners are varied, and even involve using social media when someone dies unattended in order to find family members.
It isn’t a riveting job; it wouldn’t make great television. There are extremely busy times and extremely slow times. No one can determine what the day – or night – will be like.
Given the importance of the task and the unpredictability of the workload, it would seem reasonable for coroners to receive a suitable salary, or at least have their expenses paid. But that is not true in Niagara County, and that is leading to a disturbing shortage of individuals willing to run for the office and stick with it. One coroner, appointed to replace a resigning coroner, quit after one day in office after reflecting on the demands of being on call 24/7.
As News Niagara reporter Thomas J. Prohaska wrote, resignations have created four coroner vacancies in less than 18 months. Calvin W. Rhoney, of Middleport, announced his departure effective last Friday. Coroner Dwon M. Daniels, of Niagara Falls, will not be available after suffering a torn knee tendon while carrying out the duties of his regular job as a city firefighter.
That left two of the normal complement of four coroners this past Memorial Day weekend, as Prohaska noted.
Joseph V. Mantione of North Tonawanda said he spent 3½ hours waiting for a family to make the critical decision on which funeral home to use. And then he waited for the funeral home to arrive. That second call of the day would not be his last – he was called out again shortly after arriving home. Mantione has handled 142 deaths since Jan. 1.
The job of coroner requires extreme sensitivity and flexibility. In Niagara County, coroners are elected in four separate districts for four-year terms. It is up to the County Legislature to fill midterm vacancies – a task that they have had to perform repeatedly lately.
The vacancies should not be a surprise, given the $17,500 a year salary. And the coroners have to purchase their own supplies and use their own cellphones.
No one is forcing them to run for office. They do so willingly, but Legislator Jason A. Zona, D-Niagara Falls, makes a good point when talking about compensating coroners “properly.” At minimum, they should not be paying for their own supplies.
Changing to a medical examiner system, as in Erie County, would be far more expensive than the current coroner system, according to a study committee. But continuing along the same path is unsustainable.
Niagara County leaders need to find a solution.