DIXON – Lee County Coroner Jesse Partington handles 55 percent of the cases in his office. His deputies do the rest.
Whiteside County Coroner Joe McDonald, on the other hand, says he takes care of about 95 percent of the cases himself.
“For the last 20 years, the people have elected me to be the coroner, not someone else,” said McDonald, also the owner of McDonald Funeral Homes. “When I have multiple calls, I call a second deputy. I can’t be everywhere at once.”
Partington, who manages Preston-Schilling Funeral Home, said in an interview that he needs to spend time with his family, noting that he and his wife have three children who are involved in sports such as football, volleyball, soccer and basketball.
His 2008 opponent, Pat Jones Jr., said 55 percent seems reasonable. He said McDonald’s 95 percent is “unusually high.”
“Joe is kind of a one-man show,” he said. “Everyone has to understand that when you’re coroner, you’re 24-7. You need to have good help. Joe is close to 24-7.”
Partington said deputy coroners call him about cases in which he isn’t directly involved.
“[The deputies] will call me in the middle of the night and discuss a case,” Partington said. “They do a good job for me. Sometimes I call them to discuss a case.”
Whiteside County has lower budget
A “handful” of Lee County Board members, Partington said, don’t understand what the coroner’s office does.
“They don’t know how many calls we do in a week. That’s why you have deputies. That’s so I can take a break,” Partington said. “The coroner’s office is 7 days a week, 24 hours a day. Death doesn’t take a vacation.”
The Lee County coroner’s office keeps lists on which person in the coroner’s office handles each case. The Whiteside County office maintains no such database, so the 95 percent number comes from McDonald.
The Whiteside County coroner’s office has more work. In fiscal year 2011, it handled 478 deaths to Lee County’s 281. Yet Whiteside County spent $107,000 for its coroner’s office, while Lee County spent $115,000.
McDonald made $49,500 as coroner in 2012, while Partington was paid $46,500, according to the Open the Books website.
Partington said he didn’t know how McDonald is able to have a lower budget than Lee County’s.
One of the big differences is that Lee County hires a full-time secretary for the coroner’s office, while Whiteside County has a very part-time secretary.
A longtime pattern
When Partington was growing up in Amboy, he took an interest in becoming a coroner. He earned a degree in mortuary science and took a job in 1998 with Preston-Schilling, whose owner, Richard Schilling, was the longtime coroner.
Partington was designated a deputy coroner.
In 2008, he campaigned as a Republican for the coroner’s position when his boss decided against re-election after four decades in office. He beat Jones, owner of Jones Funeral Home.
That is part of a pattern.
In 1968, Schilling, then a deputy coroner, was elected to the top job, assuming the post upon the retirement of his boss, Robert Preston, who had the job 24 years.
In Illinois, the job of coroner is largely the domain of funeral directors. Why?
Partington said both roles deal with death. Other than that, funeral directors are not inherently more qualified than others to be coroner, he said.
“A nurse at a hospital could decide to become a coroner,” he said. “You definitely need to have some sort of compassion for the families.”
A strict separation in jobs
When the coroner responds to a death, Partington said, he is a representative of the coroner’s office, not the funeral home.
In his role as coroner, Partington said, he has has never tried to persuade a family to do business with Preston-Schilling Funeral Home. When asked about funeral homes, he gives families the names of the local ones, but he refrains from noting his affiliation.
Sauk Valley Media scanned through the coroner’s office records and compared them to obituaries, finding no trend that Preston-Schilling got more business as a result.
In the 2008 campaign, Jones said the jobs of coroner and funeral director should be kept separate, but sometimes were commingled at Schilling’s office. When the coroner’s secretary was out, he said, calls went to Preston-Schilling. He suggested using an answering service.
When Schilling was coroner, coroner’s calls went to Line 4 at Preston-Schilling, Partington said. Since Partington took office, after-hours calls have gone to an answering service.
Jones praised the move, which helps to reduce the confusion between the coroner’s office and the funeral home.
He also said he doesn’t believe Preston-Schilling gets any more business as the result of Partington’s position as coroner.
“It helps that his name isn’t on the outside of the funeral home,” he said. “There was more of a connection with Richard Schilling as coroner.”