After being elected Brown County Coroner during the fall 2012 election, Dr. Judith Varnau is now settling in to her new position.
Varnau was elected via the write-in process and had her first official day as interim coroner on Dec. 30 and her first official day in office as Brown County Coroner on Jan. 7.
In the few weeks that Varnau has officially been coroner, she has already worked on two deaths and has taken care of office responsibilities.
"So far it has been, in some ways, a little bit challenging trying to make sure all of the things that need to be done are done," Varnau said. "For example, there were some bills that I needed to figure out how to pay and I received my first response call in which I had to go ahead and response to the death scene. The first one I sent to the funeral home and the second I had to send to UC and the process of trying to get them there."
Prior to her first official day, Varnau said she was eager to learn about what her duties would be and made attempts to get a jump-start on that process. She also said the differences between herself and the previous coroner would be slight.
"After being elected in November, I had asked to be contacted at any time of the day or night so that I could also respond with the coroner or investigator to get some on-scene experience prior to actually performing the task by myself," Varnau said. "Nobody ever called for me to respond to any scene prior to assuming interim coroner Dec. 30, 2012. My time spend as a nurse in Vietnam, back in 1969-70, probably exposed me to more than I could have experienced, responding to any local death scene."
For three days, Varnau attended the new coroner's orientation in Columbus and has the course materials available for her deputy and coroner's investigator in order for them to receive the same introduction that she received. She also plans for coroner office personnel to participate in continuous professional training.
"As far as any changes in the office...nothing has changed or will change, except the names, and that Dr. McKinley was a male medical doctor where as I am a female doctor of Osteopath. The only other change in day-to-day operations will be that cases arising from calls to respond from the communications center will be personally handled more frequently on scene by me, my deputy, or the coroner's investigator."
Varnau's first call was on New Year's Day and it was determined the individual had died from natural causes. Deaths determined to be "natural" at the scene are not handled as coroner cases and are in turn handled by a physician.
Varnau also explained why she chose a new person to fill the position of coroner's investigator, which Georgetown Chief of Police Forrest "Buddy" Coburn had previously held. The decision was based on experience, willingness to do the job, and cost to the county for employee salaries.
"There were about five people who came to me to say that they would be interested in doing the job, and I looked at all of their qualifications," Varnau said. "I found a retired cop who had even more experience (than Coburn) as a cop - he did not have experience as a coroner's investigator but I felt he brought to the table a good amount of experience. Yes, Buddy had quite a bit of experience having been the coroner's investigator, but he wanted to have quite a bit of money to do that... and I thought that was too much for my budget."
The new coroner's investigator is Don Newman, a retired law enforcement officer from Ripley. So far, Newman has helped by being on-call when Varnau was at Anderson Mercy for a delivery but was not called in. He has 39+ years of experience in Brown County overall.
"The new investigator is an independent contractor saving the county from having to employ someone desiring approximately 20 percent of the 2013 coroner's remaining budget funds, plus PERS, or a salary greater than 50 percent of the coroner's salary," Varnau said. "The coroner's 2013 yearly budget is already scheduled to be reduced by $13,200 for 2012 bills that were not timely processed and paid in time by the commissioners out of the 2012 budget funds. This is after the commissioners said there will be no increase in the 2013 coroner's budget. The county also saved the cost of hiring a deputy coroner by asking the auditor and commissioners to reduce my salary, if legally possible, to use that difference in pay for my deputy. With everyone's budget extremely tight these days, every penny adds up."
One of Varnau's employees at Brown County Women's Health volunteers to help with coroner tasks, while two other employees help the coroner's office with coordinating and communicating.
"That couple with doing coroner paperwork on my time off away from daily OB/GYN practice saves the county another $7,500 requested by someone for secretarial pay as part of his pay," Varnau said.
Varnau said she and her team want to perform their duties as understood by law and that they are here to assist local law enforcement and help families in the area.
"The coroner's office is here to assist law enforcement, fire, and EMS personnel while being supported through their efforts in return," Varnau said. "Deceased individuals are not going anywhere, but death scenes may be an inconvenience for those still living. It's all a matter of perspective throughout life. My office is sincerely here to cooperate as a 'team player' for any agency requesting our presence at death scenes."