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New sheriff to charge for funeral escorts

Posted: January 4, 2011 5:12 p.m.
Updated: January 5, 2011 5:00 a.m.

A change in a long-standing policy came as Jim Matthews took the reins of the Kershaw County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) Tuesday.

For many years, the KCSO has provided free funeral escort services. The free ride came to an end Tuesday.

Weeks before taking office, Matthews sent a letter to all Kershaw County funeral homes informing them the KCSO would begin charging to escort funeral processions. In the letter, Matthews explains that while he wants to maintain a “positive relationship” with the county’s funeral homes, calls for service have outpaced any increase in personnel.

Prior to Tuesday, uniformed KCSO deputies were pulled from day shift duties at no cost to provide funeral home escorts. As of Tuesday, according to a copy of the letter Matthews provided, that service now shifts to off-duty personnel, although they will be provided a KCSO patrol car to perform that service.

“It will be the responsibility of the appropriate funeral home to notify the (KCSO) of the need for deputies to perform this duty. This notification must be done 24 hours in advance of the funeral,” wrote Matthews.

Matthews has instituted a fee of $35 per hour per deputy at a three-hour minimum.

During an interview Monday, Matthews said he began to formulate the policy after a shift lieutenant complained to him.

“He said the funeral homes wanted deputies to pick up the family, bring them to the funeral home, escort them to the church and, if necessary, to the cemetery,” said Matthews. “He said, ‘My deputies are gone for two to three hours.’ Right now, they’re not being compensated. Right now, taxpayers are paying for this.”

Matthews said he wanted to make sure even off-duty deputies were adequately paid for their time.

“They have to get up, shower, get dressed, pick up the patrol car, drive -- it’s not worth it for the deputy to come do it (for free). I wanted the three-hour minimum so deputies are fairly compensated,” he said.

Matthews said he based the $35-per-hour rate on what Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott told him he charges.

Robbie Powers, of Powers Funeral Home, said most funerals require two deputies.

“That’s $105 per officer,” for the three-hour minimum, he noted, “and it takes two officers. That’s $210. That’s the reason why I wanted to have this published.”

Powers said he wanted to make sure the public knew about the new charges since it will be families that will, ultimately, pay for the service.

In the letter, Matthews said the $35-per-hour charge will “cover the cost of the deputy and the cost to the (KCSO) for the use of patrol vehicles and will include fuel costs.” He said the KCSO will bill funeral homes on a monthly basis through the county’s finance department.

“This policy will allow the (KCSO) to reduce the response time to calls for service by the deputies on duty who in the past were taken off routine patrol duties to service the needs of the funeral homes,” wrote Matthews. “This policy change also falls in line with the policies of sheriff’s offices in adjoining counties.”

But Powers and other funeral home directors said that is only partially true.

“I would love to have sat down with him about this,” said Eugene Brown of Brown’s Funeral Home. “There are some discrepancies. They are only charging in Sumter and Richland counties. Lee does not charge. Fairfield does not charge. Lancaster does not charge.”

Jeffrey B. Moore, executive director of the S.C. Sheriff’s Association, said Lancaster is getting out of the funeral escort business.

“Lancaster recently announced they will no longer do them at all,” said Moore.

He said, however, while he had no hard data, most sheriffs still provide such escorts.

“Most often, it is done using off-duty personnel who are paid by the funeral home,” Moore said. “The reason they do off-duty is because the service can take them out of the county not doing law enforcement work.”

Moore said many funeral homes have an escort fee built into their billing. He also said Matthews is modeling his new policy after Charleston County.

“The business doesn’t pay the deputy directly. They pay the county and the county takes out taxes and benefits and then a check is cut to the deputy,” said Moore.

He said Matthews likely discovered the Charleston model during his recent attendance of “sheriff’s school.”

“We had a director of administration and budget come in from Charleston County. I’m sure he heard how they handle off-duty employment,” Moore said. “There is a statute that allows off-duty officers -- in uniform, with their weapons and gear -- with permission from the sheriff to moonlight for security. That individual must go to the sheriff and say ‘I would like to get on the list to do that.’ Charleston created the model several years ago. Deputies can get credit for that work when they retire.”

Moore said the Charleston policy and the state statute were created to protect law enforcement employees.

Brown and A.J. Cooke with Cooke Funeral Home, however, said they were concerned about protecting the families who come to them at such difficult times.

Brown said Sumter County charges a flat $50 per deputy, regardless of how long a funeral home needs them.

“That, I can live with. I’m looking forward to working with the new sheriff, but I cannot see $35 per hour. It’s hard to come up with $35 an hour when going from a house to a church is usually all I need,” said Brown.

Cooke agreed.

“I don’t know if I need it for three hours,” Cooke said. “What we generally do is from (a family’s) house to a church and from a church to a cemetery if that is needed there. Sometimes the burial is in the church cemetery. Sometimes, it only takes 15 minutes from a house to a church.

“But these weren’t questions that were asked of funeral home directors.”

Brown said while families may elect not to pay the extra money for an escort, he is considering dropping the requests altogether.

“I’m looking at not using a county escort. It’s going to be hard to explain to somebody; it’s going to be rough to explain (the $35-per-hour) fee to the consumer,” said Brown.

Powers confirmed that Sumter County charges a $100 flat fee for two deputies. He said the city of Columbia charges the same amount while Richland County charges $140.

“I’m not saying this is a bad thing -- he can do what he wants with his department,” said Powers.

He, Brown and Cooke all said they have received complimentary funeral escort services from the Camden Police Department (CPD) while they are in the city limits. None of the men said they had heard of any plans to change that.

Cooke said he, too, is considering not using KCSO escorts.

“We’ll call for a city escort as needed, but if we don’t need a county escort, we won’t call for one,” said Cooke.

The biggest complaint all three men had was that Sheriff Matthews communicated the policy change by letter rather than meeting with them personally.

“I think it could have been a little more personal. He could have gotten with us. Instead of just sending a cold letter and shoving it down our throats,” Cooke said. “What was working was working. People are going to know the funeral home bill is going up but not because of the funeral home. I just think changes like this should be talked about.”

Cooke said his first funeral of 2011 under the new policy will take place Thursday.

“I’ll be looking at paying that fee and then charging the family. That’s the first family concerning that matter -- that’s a charge we’ll be looking at,” he said.

Matthews indicated Monday he would be willing to negotiate with the funeral homes.

“I’m willing to consider a $100 flat rate per deputy if they only have to be there 15 minutes before the funeral and leave immediately after (the procession),” said Matthews.

But, he added, the public needs to look at who really needs the money.

“I would good naturedly tell people, compare the lifestyle of the deputies and the lifestyle of the funeral home directors and ask who should be complaining about money,” said Matthews.

Roosevelt Osborne, director for Collins Funeral Home, said although he was aware of the upcoming changes to the funeral escort policy, he had not received Matthews’ letter and declined to comment.

Haile’s Funeral Home and Kornegay Funeral Home did not return messages asking for comment.

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