St. Tammany coroner bill passes committee

Legislation to wrest away financial control from the St. Tammany Parish Coroner’s Office zipped through a Senate committee Tuesday.

State Rep. Tim Burns and St. Tammany Parish President Pat Brister told the state Senate Committee on Judiciary B that House Bill 561 is necessary because of abuses within the Coroner’s Office.

“This has been a black eye for us. We have been embarrassed by it. We want to correct it as soon as possible,” Brister said.

Burns, R-Mandeville, said payroll skyrocketed under Coroner Peter Galvan’s supervision with Galvan taking home more than $200,000 a year for a part-time job. He said office funds also were used to make trips to Napa Valley and Hilton Head, buy groceries and acquire two take-home cars for the coroner.

“This conduct paints ... an image we’ve worked hard to rid ourselves of,” Burns said.

The legislation would repeal state law making the St. Tammany Parish coroner “solely responsible for the fiscal operation of the coroner’s office.” Parish government would control contracts and salaries.

HB561 also would call for Galvan to transfer all funds on hand from property taxes to the parish except the amount needed to operate his office for the remainder of the calendar year.

Galvan’s term expires in three years. Paperwork was filed in May to launch a recall campaign that must get 53,000 registered voters’ signatures in 180 days to force a new election. The Parish Council asked him to resign — a request that Galvan ignored.

The Legislative Auditor’s Office is looking into the reports of lavish spending, inflated salaries and other problems within Galvan’s office.

Burns said Tuesday that financial management needs to be restored.

State Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, joked that the problems need to be resolved before the Orleans Parish coroner finds out how much money his counterpart makes.

“The sooner we get this back under control, the better,” Morrell said.

State Sen. Karen Peterson, D-New Orleans, said the coroner still would be elected. The legislation, she said, just would allow the Parish Council and the Parish President’s Office to govern the coroner’s finances.

The committee voted without objection to send the bill to the full Senate.