RIO GRANDE COUNTY—Saying Rio Grande County Commissioners were not providing an adequate budget for the office — and he could no longer personally subsidize it— long-time Rio Grande County Coroner Rusty Strohmayer resigned on Friday.
His official letter of resignation, submitted to the county commissioners early afternoon on Friday, March 17, states, “I am resigning from the office of county coroner effective immediately. I am writing this under protest as I am not able to properly carry out my duties by statute without proper equipment and financial support.”
Rio Grande County Commissioner Chairman Karla Shriver said the county commissioners had tried to work with Strohmayer and believed they were providing an adequate budget for his office, especially compared to other counties in the San Luis Valley.
The Rio Grande County Coroner’s budget for 2017 is $101,698. Alamosa County’s budget for its coroner’s office this year is $106,512. The other Valley counties’ coroner budgets are: $55,211, Conejos County; $42,959, Saguache County; $32,745, Mineral County; and $26,138, Costilla County.
Strohmayer, who has owned Strohmayer’s Funeral Home in Monte Vista since 1995 and served as deputy coroner since 1984, was appointed Rio Grande County Coroner in 2003 to follow former long-time Coroner Dr. Norman Haug, and Strohmayer has been elected to the position ever since.
“I feel like I have helped people,” he said, adding, “I felt I was doing my job properly.”
Re-elected in the November 2014 election, Strohmayer had nearly two years left on his term when he resigned on Friday.
The Rio Grande County Commissioners issued a statement on Monday that they would begin the process of appointing someone to fill Strohmayer’s post and in the meantime would utilize Alamosa County Coroner Kevin Rogers.
Commissioners stated that a new county coroner would be appointed on March 27. They will be accepting letters of interest for the position until noon on Thursday, March 23 in person to County Administrator Roni Wisdom, Room 207 of the Rio Grande County Courthouse, 925 6th Street, Del Norte, or by email to [email protected] See www.riograndecounty.org.
Strohmayer said on Monday that just as the county provides equipment, space and other materials for other elected officials to do their jobs, the county should provide the same for the coroner. A coroner receives salary set by the legislature, he explained, but his operational money should not have to come out of that salary.
Since it was not financially feasible for the county to have a separate space for the coroner — and because of the strict requirements of the coroner’s office and operations, they could not be co-located in other county buildings — Strohmayer has operated the coroner’s office out of his funeral home, for which the county has reimbursed him in the recent past, he said. Previously he had absorbed the costs himself but could no longer do so, he said.
He has also worked with other county officials such as Rio Grande County Sheriff Brian Norton to obtain an old van from the sheriff’s office to use for transportation for coroner operations. The van finally gave out, he added.
Shriver said Strohmayer last month requested a replacement vehicle, also coming from the sheriff’s office, which the commissioners approved.
“We feel we have tried to work with him as far as equipment and with the budget,” Shriver said.
Strohmayer said that this year the county has not reimbursed him for coroner’s expenses, which he could not subsidize on his own, so he gave the county commissioners a deadline of the end of last week. Strohmayer said the county attorney told him on Thursday the commissioners’ stance had not changed, so after consulting with the Colorado Coroners Association, he submitted his resignation on Friday.
“They hadn’t paid me for buildings and facilities since January 1,” he said.
Shriver said the county had reimbursed Strohmayer for expenses he submitted. She added there is money in the budget for expenses for the coroner such as office space, phone and internet.
Shriver said what brought the issue to a head last week was that Strohmayer wanted to speak with the commissioners about the budget, and they said they would be willing to talk with him about the budget but it would be the 2018 budget at this point, since the 2017 budget was approved.
Strohmayer said when he consulted with the state coroners association, representatives there said he could fight the county, and it would stand behind him, but it would cost the taxpayers whom he represents to take the battle to court, so he decided to resign.
He said he had decided not to run again after this term was up, but he had hoped for his tenure to end differently.
“I am really tired of fighting with them over everything,” he said.
He said the county commissioners acted like they were his bosses.
“They aren’t my boss. The people are my boss,” he said.
He said the county commissioners said his budget was late, but there were extenuating circumstances last year at the time the budget was to be submitted, and he had let the county commissioners know it would be late. For example, he was undergoing surgery at the time the budget was due.
In addition, the day after his surgery he lost one of his deputy coroners in a plane crash. He lost another deputy coroner the same week, which left him with only one deputy coroner, he said.
Shriver said the budget process is the same every year. In August the department heads and elected officials submit budgets for their offices for the coming year. The commissioners meet with those officials and department heads and go over their requests. The commissioners have to meet budget deadlines every year, she explained, and the department heads and officials know they have to work with these deadlines every year.
She added that Strohmayer did not submit a budget last year when they were due to the commissioners, so the commissioners developed a budget based on the year before. When Strohmayer did submit a budget for 2017, the process to submit it was already completed, she said.
“It is our feeling we have tried to work with him and give him a budget that is workable,” she added.
Following his resignation as coroner, Strohmayer said he can now concentrate on his funeral home business, which he plans to transition to another owner in 3-5 years. He has helped other counties with coroner operations in the past and said he would still be willing to assist them.
“It’s a hard job,” he said. “It’s not a fun job.”
However, he said it was rewarding because he felt like he helped people during a tough time and that he performed his duties properly.
“I want to thank everybody for supporting me,” he said. He added he appreciated the good working relationships he had with sheriffs’ offices, law enforcement and the state patrol.
“We are not looking back. We are going forward,” he concluded.