In the midst of struggles to stay financially balanced, the Merced County Board of Supervisors approved increasing pay Tuesday for autopsy services to fill in for a position that was vacated in July.
The county's contract with Forensic Medical Group was increased to $175,000 from $50,000 a year, according to county documents. The move was necessary to keep forensic services operational in the county.
The increase in payout will stay effective until the county's lead forensic pathologist position is filled, a spot that opened up when then-forensic pathologist Ann Bucholtz, who was hired July 20, 2009, ended her employment in July.
Lead forensic pathologists generally perform autopsies that assist county law enforcement agencies with criminal investigations. Bucholtz had been on administrative leave earlier that month, and Human Resources Director Robert Morris said she was dismissed because her services were no longer needed.
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As an at-will employee, Bucholtz could be released any time for any reason.
County officials declined to comment on why she was put on administrative leave.
During Tuesday's board meeting, there were some reservations by supervisors over the increase in cost. Talk about pushing it off was overridden by the necessity of the services, and the board unanimously passed the amendment.
Though contracting out costs about twice as much as having an in-house pathologist, Undersheriff Tom Cavallero said it's necessary to keep forensic work going in the interim. "If we weren't going to have a county employee pathologist, we would have to budget about $700,000 a year for a contract," he said.
Including benefits, the lead pathologist position pays about $300,000 a year, Cavallero said, adding that while the position is vacant, that money will go toward paying for the increased contract cost.
The department is looking to fill the position quickly, he said. Officials have received one application so far, and want to keep the application period open longer to allow for a better field of candidates.
Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or firstname.lastname@example.org.