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Suffolk calls reorganization critical to ME's office


The Suffolk County Medical Examiner's Office would split from the county health department under a new plan meant to give the office more control over its budget and staffing.

The plan would create a separate department with the power to submit its own budget to the county executive, who proposes Suffolk's annual budget. The county legislature approved the measure earlier this month, and it awaits state approval.

The move follows budget reductions that forced the health department to cut more than 100 jobs in June. The medical examiner's office, which investigates some 4,500 deaths and performs about 900 autopsies a year, was largely spared from those cuts, losing a single clerk's position, said Grace Kelly McGovern, a Health Department spokeswoman.

But Legis. Edward Romaine (R-Center Moriches), who sponsored the measure with Minority Leader John Kennedy (R-Nesconset), said the office needs an "independent" voice to advocate for funding. The medical examiner is among nine health department divisions with responsibilities ranging from environmental testing to restaurant inspections.

"They [the Medical Examiner's Office] haven't had their voice heard in budget deliberations," Romaine said. "We need to make sure their needs are considered and they're funded well enough to do their job, a critical job."

Romaine said the county is trying to avoid future staffing shortages that could compromise the office. He pointed to Nassau County's crime lab, which was shut down in February 2011 following a state investigation that spotlighted repeated errors in drug testing at the lab.

County Executive Steve Bellone supports the restructuring, said spokeswoman Vanessa Baird-Streeter.

"The sensitive nature of the work that falls under the auspice of the Medical Examiner as well as its mission-specific duties warrant its independence," Baird-Streeter said.

Health Department Commissioner James Tomarken supports the move, McGovern said.

Legis. William Spencer (D-Huntington), the health committee chairman, said he supported the measure because it "gives the Medical Examiner the ability to advocate for resources during hard economic times."

The measure also calls for a deputy chief medical examiner position that currently is unfunded. The position could cost the county about $200,000 to $250,000, according to the legislature's nonpartisan Budget Review Office.