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County pushed to increase death certificate fees. The funds sit, unspent.

Clark County officials voiced concerns about a 2019 bill that quadrupled the portion of the death certificate fee that county coroners receive, new records and interviews show.

The bill helped the coroner’s office raise an additional $350,000 earmarked for mental health programs, but the money has not been spent, according to county spokesman Dan Kulin.

Senate Bill 463 was successfully pushed by then-Clark County Coroner John Fudenberg, after the Oct. 1, 2017, mass shooting on the Las Vegas Strip. During his tenure as coroner, Fudenberg acted as the county’s lobbyist in Carson City.

The measure raised the fee coroners statewide receive for each death certificate request from $1 to $4.

The legislation earmarked the money, in part, to fund mental health programs for first responders after mass casualty events and bereavement programs for the public. Fudenberg was in the process of contracting with a mental health coordinator before he retired in August 2020. But the position, paying approximately $64,000, never happened, Kulin wrote in an email.

The coroner’s office has a general operating fund budget of about $7.5 million for 2022, the county confirmed, with an additional $1 million in other sources like grants, death certificate fees and contracts. The office employs 53 full-time staff members.

Controversial funds

On Feb. 13, 2020, Fudenberg wrote to his manager, Assistant County Manager Jeff Wells, that he wanted to keep Wells informed about plans for a mental health coordinator because of unspecified concerns by County Manager Yolanda King and County Chief Administrative Officer Les Lee Shell.

“I wouldn’t normally bother you with this but you’ve indicated Yolanda and Les Lee are not happy with the passing of SB 463 so I want to make sure you’re aware of our plan moving forward,” he wrote.

Wells said he could not remember King and Shell’s concerns and Kulin declined comment.

“I don’t have a comment on your other inquiry,” he wrote after the Review-Journal inquired about the administrators’ concerns.

Fudenberg said he does not remember any controversy and thought that the legislation passed unanimously. “Not only lawmakers but the county manager was very happy with the bill and very supportive,” he said in a phone interview.

The Southern Nevada Health District charges $38 for the first death certificate and $25 for each subsequent copy, and $4 from the fees goes to the Clark County Coroner.

Lawmaker concerns

The bill passed 65-5 in the 2019 session and Gov. Steve Sisolak signed it on June 14, 2019. But a bipartisan group of lawmakers voted against the legislation, saying it wasn’t necessary, or well thought out.

“I had just gone through the death of my mother and realized getting copies of death certificates often costs several hundred bucks,” then-Assemblyman Al Kramer, R-Carson City, said in a phone interview. “It’s not like you’re taxing the rich here. You’re often talking about the poorest of the poor.”

Assembly Majority Floor Leader Teresa Benitez-Thompson, D-Reno, agreed.

“I didn’t see a strong plan to use those dollars and that is not good policy,” she said, adding other agencies and non-profits already provide bereavement programs.

Before retiring in 2020, Fudenberg touted the fee increase to Cook County, Ill., Chief Medical Examiner Ponni Arunkumar and suggested that his girlfriend, Catherine Scherwenka, could provide some meditation services, according to records the Review-Journal obtained

“I’ve attached statue (sic) that allows us to raise money for our mental health program, lets discuss it and I’ll let you know how we got it passed,” he wrote on Aug. 8, 2019. “Here is my contact for Inner Peace Initiative (IPI) – Catherine Scherwenka – REDACTED, she’s expecting you (to) call.”

Cook County spokeswoman Natalia Derevyanny said the county did not contract with Scherwenka’s meditation company. Fudenberg had hired Scherwenka to provide meditation to Clark County employees and first responders, but he claims they were not in a relationship at the time.

Contact Arthur Kane at akane@reviewjournal.com and follow @ArthurMKane on Twitter. Kane is a member of the Review-Journal’s investigative team, focusing on reporting that holds leaders and agencies accountable and exposes wrongdoing.

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