Wages to work

Published 9:09 pm Friday, June 26, 2009

Not many people would work a job that could call them to work at all hours of the day or night and every holiday. Even fewer would accept that job for 40-cents an hour.

And only one in Pike County takes on the task that County Coroner Jerry Williams has done for the last 24 years.

Williams has had to leave his family in restaurants, his wife at baseball games and the comfort of his bed in all hours of the night. He has had to take emergency calls on vacations and endured these outings in whatever conditions the weather has to bring.

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And each time he answers a call, Williams knows he is going to meet people on the worst day of their lives — the day they have lost someone they love.

“You get to help people when they need it the most,” Williams said.

It’s not something that gets easier, he said. But, it is something that through the years has become more costly.

Williams’ salary as the Pike County Coroner averages $33.33 each month, to compensate him for his average monthly workload of 60 to 85 hours. In addition, he receives $200 a month, or $2,400 a year, to cover expenses.

But after paying for fuel, required training courses, paging, telephone and radio communication services, postage, office supplies, evidence containers, body bag and photo processing and printing, those expense payments don’t even cover half of the $4,800 to $6,000 Williams spends out of pocket to cover these costs.

It is evident Williams, retired owner of Radio Shack, isn’t serving as coroner to make a profit. But, just what is it that drives him to do what can be such unpleasant work?

“If you care about people and want to take care of them, then you can,” Williams said.

“You definitely don’t do it for any other reason than to help people.”

Through the years, Williams said, perhaps, he has accomplished just that.

“One day, I was looking at houses, and a real estate agent asked if I remembered coming to her house when her mother died,” Williams said. “She told me her mother was a housewife, and I said, ‘No, m’aam, your mother was a homemaker. Look how nice she kept your home.’ She said that’s something that has stuck with her ever since. In those situations, when people are under stress they listen, and they absolutely remember.”

As coroner, Williams does not have to attend to each death in the county. They break down best to what he calls the four “uns” — unexpected, unexplained, unlawful and unattended.

He answers deaths of patients who have died within 24 hours of admittance in Troy Regional Medical Center, those in hospice when requested, any criminal or unanswered death and all deaths of individuals under the age of 18.

The coroner is also responsible for notifying the next of kin, certifying the cause and manner of death, filing reports to agencies, preserving evidence, testifying in court, providing documentation for insurance claims and filing death certificates.

Williams also assists the district attorney in death cases, maintains records for court, consults with families on autopsy reports and coordinates disaster relief.

Another component of his job is in taking preventative measures, such as disaster planning and coordinating child death prevention programs.

Williams first served as deputy corner with state Rep. Alan Boothe, D-Troy, who was coroner at the time.

Then, when Boothe went to serve as a member of the Troy City Council, Williams was appointed by then-Gov. George Wallace to finish his term. And, he hasn’t stopped since.

Boothe asked Williams to help him because his job as head of Troy University security had him out of town frequently. Williams was earning his masters degree in criminal justice at the time, and he agreed.

Now though, Williams knows his time as coroner won’t be forever, and he has started to lobby for a change in pay.

Williams went before the Pike County Commission last week asking the commission to sponsor a resolution to send to the state Legislature to change the salary, since the county has no local authority to do so on its own.

He also asked the commission to pay the coroner’s health insurance, since he is the only county elected official that pays for his own.

“I’m not really looking for a raise, but nobody else is going to take this job,” Williams said. “I want it to at least be self-supporting, so we can get a quality person to do it.”

Right now, Williams total salary and expense payments come close to $3,000, while his expenses range from $4,800 to $6,000.

Boothe, who would have to take the bill before the legislature for a vote, said as long as the commission sponsored it, he would take it on.

“I know a lot of counties pass legislation increasing their coroner’s salary,” Boothe said.

“…I do believe he deserves it. It is a service to the people of the county. It’s not for the money you can get someone to answer all these death calls.”