ELKHORN — When longtime Walworth County coroner John Griebel died in 2013 after 50 years on the job, his passing left a significant and unexpected void.
The county turned to neighboring Waukesha County and signed a contract for help related to investigating local deaths.
Five years later, the contract might be shifted to Milwaukee County.
Walworth County officials are considering signing on with the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s office in a move that would help create a regional operation serving much of southeastern Wisconsin.
Walworth County Administrator David Bretl said he believes switching to Milwaukee County would save money while still providing good service on an estimated 400 deaths a year.
“It’s a very important job, to do things right,” Bretl said.
The medical examiner’s office in Walworth County investigates deaths that are both accidental and natural, conducting autopsies for some, and issues permits for cremations.
The county budget for medical examiner services is $664,000 a year, of which $387,000 goes to Waukesha County under its current contract.
Milwaukee County provides such services for a number of outside counties, including Kenosha, Racine, Sheboygan, Jefferson, Ozaukee and Fond du Lac counties.
Brian Peterson, who has been Milwaukee County’s medical examiner since 2010, said he would welcome a new deal with Walworth County, and he is confident his staff could serve Walworth County well.
Noting a shortage of professionals in this particular field, Peterson said: “The idea of regionalization has practical appeal.”
If the Walworth County Board approves the move, local death investigations will be turned over to Milwaukee County starting Jan. 1.
Area funeral home directors said although it would mean sending remains farther away to Milwaukee, they support the change.
Dan Derrick, owner of Derrick Funeral Home in Lake Geneva, said his funeral home gets medical examiner cases sometimes three or four times a week. And the funeral home typically is the one delivering the remains to the medical examiner.
Derrick said he does not believe next-of-kin would raise any objections over the added time and distance needed to complete investigations using Milwaukee’s services.
“It would take a little bit longer,” he said. “But I don’t think the families would have an issue one way or another.”
About one in four deaths handled by the Walworth County medical examiner’s office requires an autopsy.
Griebel, a former county sheriff’s deputy, was elected county coroner in 1960, and he continued in that position until his death 53 years later.
Unlike coroners, medical examiners are appointed rather than elected.
Under the current contract with Waukesha County, that county’s medical examiner, Lynda Biedrzycki, oversees Walworth County cases, assisted by a Walworth County staff led by deputy medical examiner Gina Carver.
The five-year contract expires at the end of 2019.
Bretl said although there is no dissatisfaction with the work performed by Waukesha County, some people have found it awkward to call for the Walworth County medical examiner and to have the phone answered in Waukesha.
Under the new deal being considered with Milwaukee County, Walworth County staff would assume more front-office responsibilities such as answering phones and maintaining files. That way, the contract with Milwaukee County would cost less, saving Walworth County taxpayers about $80,000 a year.
“We’re still going to get a quality service,” Bretl said. “We’ll have a local presence. And we’ll save that money.”
Bretl said he would consider presenting the new medical examiner deal to the county board as part of his 2020 budget proposal later this year.
If the contract is shifted to Milwaukee County, Peterson said Walworth County residents would see improved service from his staff of more than 30 pathologists, investigators, and laboratory technicians.
Unlike Waukesha County, for example, the Milwaukee County office operates its own toxicology laboratory — which tests for the presence of drugs in a person’s body — allowing for faster test results.
“Service will be quicker, results will be returned more efficiently,” Peterson said. “This will be of benefit not just to the next-of-kin awaiting answers, but to law enforcement, attorneys and so forth.”