Permanent coroner's office among 16 projects in county's five-year plan

April 24, 2010 

Beaufort County Coroner Ed Allen, left, says he needs larger facilities, including refrigeration, something the 14 by 60-foot mobile home currently serving as his headquarters lacks. In the background are staff members Janet Horton and David Ott.

BOB SOFALY | THE BEAUFORT GAZETTE

The white trailer next to two fuel pumps is a step up from the office Beaufort County offered Ed Allen when he became coroner in 2008.

His first few months on the job, Allen split a similar trailer with another county department. With an administrative deputy as his only staff member, he was on-call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

A permanent coroner's office is one of 16 projects included a five-year plan presented Thursday to the County Council by David Starkey, the county's chief financial officer.

Now, Allen's department runs out of a trailer of its own on Shanklin Road near Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, but still is unsuitable for a county this size, say Allen and other county officials.

Allen, his full-time deputy and five part-time drivers shuttle between refrigeration units at Beaufort Memorial, Hilton Head and the Naval hospitals and the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston because there is no county morgue.

And the trailer's close quarters prevent them from providing dignified service to mourning community members. "If a family member wanted to come in and talk about what happened to their loved one, right now I have no private space to do that in," Allen said.

Funding the 16 projects in the county's five-year plan, which include the St. Helena Library at Penn Center, courthouse renovations and several new parks, will mean tax increases through 2015.

Although some council members voiced discomfort with the idea of raising tax rates after Starkey's presentation Thursday, they acknowledged a need to increase services for the county's growing population.

"From 1990 to 2000 the county's population increased 40 percent" said Weston Newton, council chairman, after Starkey's presentation. "Just to put all of this data in context, perhaps that's a salient point."

If everything goes as planned, Beaufort County will buy a site for a permanent coroner's office in the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, according to Bryan Hill, deputy county administrator.

"We're currently looking for a parcel of land or actual building," Hill said. "When we find something suitable we're poised to go to County Council to describe why this project needs to move forward."

The coroner's office has never had much space of its own.

The previous coroner, Curt Copeland, operated out of his private funeral home during his 28 years in office. Copeland's staff was on the funeral home payroll, and his drivers were off-duty emergency medical technicians.

That hodgepodge arrangement developed when Beaufort County's population was less than half what it is today, according to Allen. The Census Bureau estimates 155,000 people were living in Beaufort County last year, up from about 63,000 in 1980. Allen said his goal is to create a fully functional coroner's office for a modern Beaufort County.

"We're not the same community we were a couple of decades ago," Allen said.

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