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Legal opinion lays to rest cremation fee issue
Mary Drier posted by Tom Greene
Mon, 14 Sep 2020 17:47:14 EDT
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The issue of who can set cremation fees has been laid to rest by Tuscola County's corporate counsel.
The law firm of Braun Kendrick asserted the county's right to set fees charged by the medical examiner's office in a legal opinion to the commissioners, who approved making the letter public.
For four months, commissioners have debated the issue of who has control to set cremation fees for the county with Doctor David Stockman, who is the CEO of Michigan Institute of Forensic Science and Medicine (MIFSM).
The area of contention is MIFSM's unilaterally raising the cremation fee from $10 to $63 without notice to the commissioners or to funeral homes in the county.
The attorney's letter noted MIFSM's Aug. 2 letter acknowledged the commissioners have the "exclusive authority" over the fee charged for cremation permits.
"Unfortunately, MIFSM continues to require payment for this unauthorized increase fee before it will issue a cremation permit in the county. This must change without delay," said Attorney Eric Morris with Braun Kendrick in a letter to Stockman.
"The county did not act to raise the cremation permit fee. Given these facts, the only possible conclusion is that the increase in fee improved by MIFSM is unauthorized."
"Most importantly, MIFSM continued to charge those fees even after acknowledging that the authority to raise the fee lies with the county."
Because MIFSM had the opportunity to correct this issue on its own but has not done so, the county demands MIFSM immediately ceases directly charging any cremation permit fee.
The issue of the arbitrary fee charge was brought to the commissioners attention by Mark Ransford, of Ransford-Collon Funeral Homes, who has been the spokesperson for Tuscola's funeral homes.
Over the last few months, Ransford pointed out several times the county abdicated its responsibility to a private sector entity. In doing that, it combined two different philosophies of free-market and government, which gave a private enterprise the ability to choose the best of both.
"I am pleased the county asserted their right to set the fee. Fees need to be set in public and for the public. Any time you have a private sector given governmental authority, interesting things can happen," said Ransford. "I think that has proven out in this whole circumstance."
"I'm proud how the commissioners asserted their right, and stood by that the contract did not allow MIFSM to do what they had been doing."
Besides demanding MIFSM stop charging the increased fee, commissioners demanded the immediate refund of all of the excess fees collected to the appropriate entities.
The county also took the stance they will return to collecting the appropriately authorized $10 cremation fee and will forward the fees to MIFSM.
The letter noted commissioners understand the cremation fee has not been increased in several years and they understand the expense of issuing a permit.
And, once all of the unauthorized fees have been refunded the county is willing to work with MIFSM on a more permanent resolution going forward, and they "believe a good working relationship still exists, but the creation fee issue has to be addressed in order to maintain that relationship."
Although Ransford called into question the legality to the fee change, he noted the agency provides a quality service.
"The county advocated a fundamental responsibility they have by subcontracting it to a group that they have little or no control over or understanding of," Ransford explained.
"I'm not calling into question MIFSM's ethics. This comes down to a bad contract, and maybe a misplaced idea."
About a year ago Tuscola and several other counties contracted with MIFSM to provide medical examiner and forensic pathology services. The agency is also a training center for medical examiners as well as a forensic lab for technicians, and support staff.